One for the Road

I love to drive, but I hate Interstates. I don’t drive just to get from A to B (well, okay, I think we all do that) – I drive to see what’s out there. Since you can’t do that with bland Interstates, I’ve made it a solitary mission to seek out the highways of old.

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

Using a 1916 automobile route map certainly helps. Before the numbering of the highway system due to federal acts in the late 1920s, roads were not numbered but named. Along the way, colored posts denoted the routes, which often got their monikers from automobile clubs of the 19-teens. The automobile clubs consisted of well-to-do people who liked to drive the new-fangled machines but lamented the fact that they didn’t really have passable roads to drive them on, or places to go to. Some municipalities even forbade cars on their roads, worried that the noise would scare the horses.

1918 Road Map to the east

1918 Road Map to the east

So those who were wealthy and “modern” enough to have an automobile started “The Good Roads Movement,” a public campaign that advocated for better roads. The Good Roads Movement published highway guides and maps featuring the afore-mentioned named highways. Entrepreneurs built hotels, restaurants, and filling stations along the routes to make road travel not so much of an adventure as an excursion. The question of who’d maintain the roads – the automobile clubs? Cities or counties? – vexed auto advocates, who used their influence to lobby for road taxes that would pay for comprehensive state and federal highway systems. Within a decade, private toll roads and bridges slowly gave way to free thoroughfares, and the named highways were given a numeral designation. Some of the highways retained their descriptors – such as the Bankhead Highway (US 67/US 80), Lincoln Highway (US 50), or the Ozark Trail (portions of US 66 and US 67) – while other names faded from memory (like US 77).

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

History is not just made alongside a road… sometimes, it IS the road.

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Published in: on July 2, 2013 at 4:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.