Pop Culture Junkette

Addicted to pop culture.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those Ribbons of Highway

Today is the 50th anniversary of the federal law that created the interstate highway system. I know what you're thinking: "Are interstates really pop culture?" Of course they are.

First of all, without interstates would we have such masterpieces as National Lampoon's Vacation and "Freeway of Love"? Probably not. But, more importantly, interstates fostered the growth of the car culture and the development of suburbia. I think it's fair to say that a reaction to what is perceived as the bland conformity of suburbia is one of the major themes of late 20th century music, literature, film, and TV.

What is less obvious is the role that the building of interstates played in the creation of the urban planning movement and -- in turn -- the modern environmental movement.

I have always been fascinated by maps, and in particular by roads and thinking about where they go and how they came to be where they were. In this respect, the older U.S. highway system is much more interesting, because a lot of those roads date back to the colonial period, and even earlier to Native American trading routes. They also respect the natural landscape more and go through a lot of older towns. Indeed, in most cases, the towns were built around the roads, rather than vice versa. I remember when I was little coming across an explanation of the numbering of the highway system and feeling like I had stumbled across the Rosetta Stone or something. (Yeah, I was sort of nerdy that way.)

Anyway, Happy Birthday interstate highways!


Blogger Laura Holt said...

Oh, I love our highways! I've driven across the country several times, and for getting somewhere fast there's no beating the interstate highways, and for seeing small town America, nothing beats a long trip along one of the U.S. highways, which frequently go right through the heart of small towns. I've driven (in spurts, never all at once) the entire length of U.S. 20 which runs from the Oregon Coast to Washington D.C. And the main drag of my hometown is U.S. 101. But a lot of the character of these old highways is slowly being destroyed. In my short lifetime, the part of U.S. 20 nearest the Oregon coast has lost almost all of its narrow, backwoods, twisty excitement, and many of the old bridges on U.S. 101 have been replaced with interstate-like 4 lane structures that carry summer traffic well, but have none of the ornate beauty of their predecessors.

Have you happened to read any good books about the U.S. highway system?

6/29/2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger Bailey Quarters said...

I haven't. I think it would be an excellent subject for a book. Or a really great, multidiscipline college course. I thought I remembered someone writing a book about Highway 50, but I thought it was by William Least-Heat Moon, and I can't find any such book on Amazon.

This isn't really on point, but did you ever read any of John McPhee's books about geology, which are collected under the title "Annals of the Former World"? They're excellent, and I think that they sort of use I-80 as the cross-section.

6/29/2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Laura Holt said...

I haven't, but I'll try to track them down.

6/30/2006 9:43 AM  

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