The other day I was driving along Interstate 80 in Nebraska when Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac came on the radio. As chance would have it, the theme that day was — Interstate 80 and Nebraska.
The show opened with wonderful poem by Ted Kooser, “So This is Nebraska.” It starts out like this, and it’s better if you can imagine Garrison Keillor reading it:
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.”
That day was the anniversary of the Federal Highway Act, which practically guaranteed that poems about road trips would eventually become a lot harder to write. Interstate 80 was the first coast-to-coast superhighway. Drive it today and it’s precisely like any freeway in America: an endless ribbon of pavement punctuated by traffic barrels and exits. The exits are populated by towering signs for chain motels and chain fast-food joints and chain gas stations, all of which are identical to the ones you passed a few miles before. There’s probably a poem there someplace, but I won’t be the one to write it.
The interstate system was a good idea, I guess. Hard to see how the U.S. economy would function as well without it. But it’s not a great way to see America, or to discern those little cultural differences that still cling like dust to the small towns way out beyond the exits. I think of interstate highways like airport concourses — if that’s the place you happen to be, then you’re nowhere at all.
As long as I’m stealing from Writer’s Almanac, I’ll steal the John Steinbeck quote from Travels With Charlie, concerning Steinbeck’s reaction to his brief drive along I-90:
These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and […] at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”