Del Hayes Press

On the Road Again

“See the USA, in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call…” Dinah Shore sang that little ditty to us, back in the day, enticing us to buy the “beautiful new 1953 Chevrolet.” Anybody who watched TV, back then, is most likely humming that jingle as they read this.

Americans have always been infected with a strong case of wanderlust. We like to travel, to “get out of Dodge.” Years later, Willie Nelson celebrated that spirit with his now-timeless hit of “On the Road Again.” So it is now, and so it has always been, with me. Since before I even had my driver’s license, I wanted to be on the road, seeing America.

But for two years, America could not do that. We were all under a form of house arrest, prisoners confined to quarters by a virus nobody seemed to really understand. Fortunately, states have been opening, our smiles once again showing as masks are (mostly) removed, and America is once again taking to the roads. Anxious to join them, I recently got my Toyota Highlander out of the garage, dusted it off, and headed out on a journey that would take me from central Maine, down through Virginia and the Carolinas, and on to southern Florida, to visit my son and three grandkids. After a week, I headed up through Atlanta to Louisville to visit my brother and sister-in-law, then on through Ohio and western Pennsylvania, back to Maine.

For four thousand miles, I got to see America, again, as best it can be seen at 70+ miles per hour out the windshield of my car. But it did serve to reset my perceptions of my country, this USA that I have loved for soon to be nine decades, and which I have so many times traversed by car. I find that America is still, in many ways, the land of Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful.” But I also witnessed numerous examples of profound problems, and wonder if we as a nation are losing our heritage, our roots.

In the iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character is offered one word of advice: “plastics.” I will offer one word of what I perceive to be a looming problem area in our country: “Infrastructure.”

Empire State Building, New York City,

America has always been a nation of builders of great projects, of infrastructure, whether the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal, or building a transcontinental railroad by hand, we built things, big things, grand things. I have had the good fortune in my life to have been able to visit several of our grandest examples.

In 1948, as soon as the end of World War II let Americans get back on the roads, Dad took us to visit New York City, and we went to the top of the Empire State Building. That landmark building, at 102 stories the first true “skyscraper,” was constructed in just two years, opening in 1931 as America sank into its worst Depression in history. It has been featured in movies, was hit by a B-25 bomber during the war, and remains an icon of beauty and grandeur to the world.

The magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Later, around 1952, Dad took us to California to visit relatives. While there, we got to drive across yet another iconic American landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Again, that massive construction project, opening during the Depression in 1937, was completed in just four years, a record time. It was at the time, with a main span of 4,200 feet, and towers of 746 feet, the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. As is true of the Empire State Building, the bridge quickly became an American icon, and was the last glimpse of America seen by thousands of soldiers, as their ship passed under the bridge, headed for the troubled waters of the Pacific during World War II.

Hoover Dam, later to be named Boulder Dam, quickly became one of America’s favorite tourist sites

Our travels also took us over Boulder Dam, near Boulder City, Nevada (a short day-trip from Las Vegas) completed—once again, in the midst of America’s worst Depression—in 1936. Originally called the Hoover Dam, in honor of President Hoover, the name was changed in 1947. Built to dam the Colorado River, its purpose was to control flooding of the river, supply irrigation water and vast amounts of hydroelectric power to the region, the dam and Lake Mead, behind it, soon became one of America’s most visited tourist sites.

Built in under two years, during World War II, the Pentagon, at over 150 acres in size, is the world’s largest office building

Another impressive example of America’s capacity for building vast projects in record times was the Pentagon building, in Washington, D.C. I once got to walk its hallways as an employee of an electronics firm doing business with the Defense Department. Built during the high-pressure time of World War II, at over 150 acres in size, it was—and still is—the world’s largest office building, and was completed in less than two years.

As a last example, one which I was privileged to participate in (albeit mostly illegally) early in its inception, is America’s vast system of roadways. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1956, with construction starting soon thereafter. The system now has a total length of nearly 50,000 miles of multi-lane, limited access highways.

This is what Americans envision when thinking of taking to the open road, on our wonderful interstate highways.

If memory serves, it would have been in 1958, when, although it had not yet been opened to the public, my brother and I drove around the barriers and drove the recently-completed 50-mile stretch of I-70 between Manhattan, Kansas and Topeka, Kansas. Being the only car on the road at the time, we were lucky in that no highway patrol troopers saw fit to patrol an unopened stretch of interstate, so we escaped paying any tickets.

As the examples above attest, America has always been a nation of builders, a country where record-setting infrastructure, completed in record-setting time, was a matter of routine, an intrinsic part of our national psyche. And when Americans thought of taking to the road, doing what Dinah Shore had earlier enticed us to do, and hop in our Chevy to “see the USA,” this is what we envisioned: endless miles of safe, smooth, multi-lane roads, taking us on stress-free sight-seeing excursions across America the Beautiful.

But all too often, now, this is the interstate we experience when we attempt to travel America

But that was then. This is now. My 4,000-plus miles across much of the eastern portion of America often presented me with something far different. As I all too frequently sat, immobile, in miles-long lines of traffic stopped, or inching its way forward, the disturbing thought kept building in my mind, America has lost its roots. We are no longer builders, creators of vast infrastructure projects. We can’t even maintain what we’ve already built.

Why, I frequently wondered, has there been no further expansion of these roads that now all-too-frequently serve as vast parking lots? We’ve added cars to the national total by the millions, but in many cases not one single lane-mile of capacity has been added where most needed. Traffic often backed up for miles by lanes closed for road repairs that should have been completed many years ago. What has happened to our can-do spirit?

As a possible explanation, if not justification, soon after my journey ended I found an article stating that the excessive growth of requirements now included in government-mandated environmental impact studies has stretched the time required to obtain construction permits to now, on average, over six years. Building Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, took far less time than now required to simply get a permit to start construction.

Without question, the impact of any project on the environment must be taken into account. But what about the impact on the many thousands of cars virtually parked on the three lanes where Interstates I-90 and I-84 attempted to merge, miles west of Boston, that Sunday afternoon as I was attempting to get through to Maine. Have we as a nation, I have to wonder, allowed good intentions to smother good sense?

Nevertheless, more often than not, I traveled along the Interstates at 70-plus miles per hour, watching America as I believe it truly exists, pass by me. I marveled at how dramatically farming has changed since my days as a kid, sitting on our little Farmall B, pulling a single-bottom plow. Most fields appeared larger than our farm, and tractors are the size of 18-wheelers. In many ways, it appears that the family farm, as it existed back then, has disappeared. But I suspect most farms, though huge by comparison, are still a family affair. I hope so, as that is part of the foundation of our country.

I also marveled at American drivers. Regardless of how we might feel about them, at times as we contend with traffic, there is an infinitesimally small number of accidents, given the vast number of vehicles sharing congested lanes at high speeds. In those 4,000 miles I saw only one accident. An SUV was well off the road, against a tree-line, on its roof. The emergency responders were departing the scene, as the tow-truck was just arriving to haul off the car.

Yes, I did see far too many instances that could have easily resulted in terrible accidents, as rude, aggressive drivers cut across lanes at high speed, or bullied their way into the head of a lane stopped because of a lane closure. There are people who have no business being behind the steering wheel, but somehow we cope, we avoid the rude, dangerous moments, and somehow manage to keep it all moving.

At some point on the trip, it occurred to me that what has truly changed in America are our political “leaders.” Cloistered in the confines of our cities, often politics being their career and life, they have no concept of the America that I saw on that trip. I could easily believe that many of those who would tell us how we should build our cities, our great infrastructures, even how we should farm our land, have never been out of those cities.

I wondered, at times, if some of our highest-level, career politicians have ever once had to drive across our America at the wheel of a car, seeing the country they deign to “rule” as it truly exists, both its beauty and grandeur, and its ugly failures. They land at the near-by airport, are carried by limousine to the rally site, then take the microphone to tell us “what Americans really want is…”

What might change, I pondered, if we imposed a requirement that to be elected to national office one had to first personally drive from “sea to shining sea” on our Interstate system, with occasional side trips on the “Blue Highways.” Thinking about that put a smile on my face, at times, as I pulled forward one more car length in a seemingly endless line of cars.

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