My blog friend Keith Spillett has posted a well-written little memoir about car trips in the twenty-first century, noting the boring sameness of the experience as he and his family traveled the interstate diagonal from the Southeast to the upper Midwest. His prose knocked some dust out of my mental attic, memories reviving like long-stored tinsel finding new light. My, how times have changed.
Blue highways. A Native American author, William Least-Heat Moon had coined the term in a book to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America, roads that were drawn in blue on the old style Rand McNally road atlas. It is a story of the variegated human experience that can be found beyond the franchise-sameness of America’s Interstate highways.
I remember my own blue highways. When I was a boy in the 1940’s I recall many car trips, moving and visiting family. This was before MacDonald’s, before Holiday Inns. Motels were tiny cottages, when you could find them. My dad would always inspect the room before agreeing to the rent, and with good reason because there were no franchises and no standards. No TV, no A/C, no free breakfast.
We would drive 12 or more hours a day to save money on a long trip. It was boredom punctuated by stress. No video games then, but we would get the news on the car radio. The roads were all two-lane and in those days the driver ignored the highway markings of dotted and double lines at his peril. A flash of memory, lying on my back in the backseat, watching the utility poles endlessly speed past and thinking the trip would never end. No seat belts in those days, we were human projectiles trusting in providence.
Dad was a fairly aggressive driver, so he routinely passed cars in front of us. Mother was a white-knuckle passenger. She seldom commented but I knew she contemplated death on each passing and I secretly did too. Driving at night was even more terrifying. Dad was constantly changing from high to low-beam headlights and would occasionally curse under his breath when on-coming traffic failed to dim theirs in time. And onward into the blackness we would plunge.
Meals on the road were a real treat for me – we would go to “cafe’s”, places catering to truckers and tourists. Remember, this was before fast-food, so eating out was very unusual for a little boy in a blue-collar family. I was transported to a different world. Occasionally I could buy a trinket. Once I got my picture taken astride a mangy stuffed buffalo. Funny, the cobwebs in my brain-attic.