The radio chatters about the traffic accident seven miles ahead of me in the LA Freeway system, as I begin to slow behind six lanes of bumper to bumper traffic that I now know is at least seven miles long. I notice the motorcycles flying by me on the left with a grin and a roar, and wonder what the @#$%& am I doing here? Supper’s awaitin’ and so is my bride and our kids. It’s in the early days of cell phones and I don’t have one. I call on my company two-way radio and ask the dispatcher to call my wife and inform her that she’ll have to take the kids to Little League because I’m embedded in the mark of progress, Los Angeles style! Need a reason to brave the desert heat? Here is one!
While waiting in grid lock, I’m thinking back to earlier times. Back before I met my life’s companion, before California or Oregon or anything west of the Mississippi touched my shoes, there were highways. They were two lanes – maybe three – and had route signs which were shields that were all white with black. I had to come to the conclusion that the kids today have missed out on a great American tradition. No cell phones, no text messages, no I-pods, no interstates. It was heaven.
I’d been transferred to the left coast from the Atlantic seaboard, New London, Connecticut. Being a single bloke with three weeks to kill before reporting to Bremerton, I spent some time with my folks in Lancaster NY, then loaded my VW beetle to the windows with everything I owned and plenty of peanut butter and jelly. Go west, young man, and when you run out of country, you’re there. West along I-90 corridor, which at that time didn’t exist. It was US20 southwest along Lake Erie through PA and OH, west through Indiana, Illinois, and the corner of Wisconsin, I think. Then west to Iowa and Nebraska. At Casper Wyoming Rt. 20 was closed - all torn up for construction. I turned south on US83 which took me to North Platte. I went west on US30 to Cheyenne Wyoming and northwest on US87. Then through Idaho and Montana on US12, then US97 right into Seattle, and across Puget Sound on a ferry boat to the Navy Base north of Port Orchard, WA. What a beautiful country we have! Enough sky for everybody, and loads of acres too! It was great to have no schedule and no time limits of which to speak.
In all that traveling, all alone, I never hit a toll booth, a limited access sign or even a multi-lane highway except in the big cities. I used to love to find a shady spot along the highway and sleep all day, then drive a few hours at sundown and long into the night. There is something magical about passing through the heart of a tiny little hamlet at 3:30 in the morning, nobody awake accept an occasional trucker or a patrol officer. The little shops and municipal buildings lighted enough to be safe but not glaring, the traffic signals all green along the state and US highways. The towns were quaint, rustic, a lady would call them lovely, a continuous Norman Rockwell moment for nine straight days. The guys at the 24-hour gas stations were glad to have somebody to chat with for a moment, pour a cup of java, glad to pump a few gallons of petrol too, although my 36 horsepower engine didn’t need much. They all laughed at the big sign I had lashed to the back, “Totally electric vehicle. Beware extension cord.” When the sun came up behind me, I’d travel for a few more hours “seeing the world” as the Navy had promised me, then back to snooze for the next cycle. It’s funny how I got here, I thought; I had gone to Buffalo from home to sign up for the Air Force, but the office was closed. I went next door to the Navy Recruiter and signed up. What the heck, I thought, girls like those navy-blue uniforms too!
Our precious kids today are barraged with ads for super computers and super-charged raging vehicles and speed and pounding sound resources. They have GPS and who knows what all in those pocket computers they carry around. But they don’t have the relaxed, service oriented, friendly, safe, pleasant, memorable moments of the US highway system of the fifties and sixties, and I am sure before. I hope they can find a trace of it somewhere as they grow. It’s part of what had made our country great. It should be savored, swished around and the essence allowed to fill their olfactory and taste buds. Oh don’t let it wither!
How does that song go? “They paved Paradise, and put up a parking lot…” -fhs