Highway

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Overrated The fame of Route 66 may have begun in the Dust Bowl but it ended up in the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a cinematic assemblage of clichés from film and fiction and song, the received wisdom of American history riding the back of the great myth: Go West, young man, and prosper. Route 66 is now lined with caricature, corny as the tepee motels and rattlesnake ranches of its legend. It’s a myth compounded of The Grapes of Wrath and Bobby Troup’s song performed by Nat King Cole and even the Rolling Stones. And aside from the happy rhythmics of its name, why shouldn’t 66 be famous? It had a merchant’s association flogging its virtues since before the first Okies headed west. The travel writer Michael Stern shrewdly observed that no one ever describes driving west to east on Route 66. We think of the pilgrimage to California and success, not the return of the failed and frustrated.

Underrated Hiding behind their dull numerical distinctions, the interstates still have individual character and flavor. Travelers from overseas seeking a highway on which they can slice across America, sampling cultures and landscapes along the way, are best advised to try Interstate 40. Route 66 connected the Midwest and California, but I-40 is truly cross-country, running from North Carolina, site of the first colony, to California.

A few miles outside Wilmington, North Carolina, the eastern terminus of 40, as well as the hometown of Michael Jordan and port of Civil War blockaderunners, a sign stands on I-40 that reads: BARSTOW, CALIF . 2554 (miles). Nowhere else is the power of our highway system to cast the continent in its net more dramatically stated. We forget how astonishing it is that one can get on a strip of asphalt and drive without stoplight or intersection for a distance greater than the diameter of the moon (a mere 2,160 miles).

I-40 is a Chuck Berry riff across America, from Asheville to Nashville, crossing Highway 61 in Memphis, and running on to Little Rock. There it passes not far from the soon-to-open Bill Clinton Library cleverly located hard by the interstate (Bill’s Place: easy off, easy on). It crosses Oklahoma and Texas, and in the West I-40 is also Route 66—or what’s left of it— superseding or paralleling that famous road and combining the speeding practicality of long-distance travel through the landscape with the convenience of stops and side trips —to the Grand Canyon or Acoma, the New Mexico pueblo that is the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America. Finally, after Barstow, it meets Interstate 15, which shoots you down to Los Angeles.

On a quiet Sunday morning in May 2002, a barge knocked down one of the bridges carrying Interstate 40 across the Arkansas River, plunging 10 cars into the river, killing 14 people, and leading to months of slow detours through Gore and other small towns in Oklahoma. It was a reminder of how much we depend on such highways and of the power of the whole interstate system as an economic and political force.