Highways and byways


“Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.”
Jerry Seinfeld

I wish I had read Larry McMurtry‘s 2000 book Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways before I set off last fall on a transcontinental bicycle ride. It would have served as a fine model for what I was trying to do with this blog: Embark on a journey and describe the sights and people along the way, musing on writers, books and historical events associated with places along the route.
McMurtry, one of my favorite authors, chose to travel America’s interstate highways at the end of the 20th century, simply to satisfy, as he put it, “the old desire to be on the move” — not to take the national pulse or to report on folksy conversations with people he met during his travels. In fact, the latter has become increasingly difficult for travelers on America’s trunk routes.

Larry McMurtry

“The development of credit-card gas pumps, microwaves, and express motels has eliminated the necessity for human contact along the interstates,” McMurtry wrote. “It is now possible to drive coast to coast without speaking to a human being at all: you just slide your card, pump your gas, buy a couple of Hershey bars, perhaps heat up a burrito, and put the pedal back to the metal.”
Our coast-to-coast travels by bicycle, of course, avoided the interstates, except for a few places in remote parts of the West where alternate routes were unavailable. As we stuck to the back roads and byways, we pedaled through profoundly rural areas, usually far from the interstates. Sometimes, the nearest grocery was miles from our campsite.
Sanderson, in far West Texas, boasted in its visitor information that the nearest traffic light was 65 miles away in Pecos County. A high spot along U.S. 180 outside Buckhorn, N.M., was called the “phone booth,” a place where the locals would drive to to make cellphone calls. Terrell County, in West Texas, has only two towns – Sanderson and Dryden – and fewer than 1,000 people, most of them scattered on ranches with huge acreage. For those folks, a trip to a shopping mall or to a multiscreen cinema was a rare event, requiring miles of travel.
When we did have occasion to cross an interstate or ride briefly on one, it seemed that these great national arteries had scant association with the communities they passed through, save to provide employment for local people at motels, fast-food franchises and other enterprises that serve the long-haul traveler.
But perhaps the blurb on the back of Roads said it best: “What could be more American than the long highway that thrusts through waving wheat fields or pine-clad mountains, the spirit of Lewis and Clark, of western settlers, preserved in tarmac.
“Yet, even as they criss-cross the United States, these highways themselves constitute a strange state apart, owing nothing to the territories they traverse or the populations which live beside them. For what heed does the trucker pay to the farmstead he thunders past at dead of night? What does the musing child know of the traveling salesman whose car approaches only to dwindle away once more across the empty prairie?”

The road goes on forever. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa

Similar thoughts flickered through my brain as my wife, Mary Ellen, and I drove back to Fort Worth in a rental car after I had finished the cross-country bike ride in St. Augustine, Fla., on Nov. 21. We drove a route to which McMurtry devoted an entire chapter in Roads: Interstate 10 from Jacksonville, Fla., to Lafayette, La., and Interstate 49 from Lafayette to Shreveport, La. (We then traveled on Interstate 20 back to Fort Worth.)
During our westward passage by car through the Florida Panhandle and southern Louisiana, we covered in hours territory that had taken us days on a bicycle. Occasionally, we passed exit signs for the rural communities that we had ridden through on our eastward journey from San Diego to St. Augustine.
During the bike ride, our route would sometimes take us over or under an interstate, and always I was a bit surprised by the quickness of the transition from a corridor teeming with east-west traffic to rural landscapes that seemed far, far off the beaten track. Only a mile or so on either side of an interstate, it seemed that the busy highway was a mirage.
I frequently wondered why people chose to live in such rural areas – and, in fact, express pride in their choice of the country life. One resident of an RV park in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., said, for example, as we sat around a campfire, that his ideal community would have no more than one traffic light – which didn’t work.
The reasons for living in what some might consider the outback are usually birth, family, job, or simply a desire to be free of the hassles of city life – too many people, rush-hour traffic, high property taxes. But our bicycle journey through the remote deserts and mountains of the Southwest and the swamps, bayous and rice fields of the Deep South confirmed my intention to remain a city dweller. Call me a pansy, but I like a wide selection of food markets, big book stores, multiple choices in movies, live theater and occasionally a big-league sporting event.

Border fence at Jacumba, Calif.

McMurtry’s travels along Interstates 8 and 10 in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas took him close to America’s porous border with Mexico. Our transcontinental bicycle route also skirted the border; at some places in California and Texas, we could see Mexico stretching off to the south across the Rio Grande or an ugly border fence. McMurtry wrote poignantly of the Border Patrol’s interaction with a relentless tide of people seeking a better life. I had similar thoughts, although less elegantly articulated. But that’s a topic for a later blog post.

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2 Comments

Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Literary musings, Texana

2 responses to “Highways and byways

  1. zack

    Thanks, due to your positive review, I’ll have to — eventually — give the book another chance. Glad you liked (and related) to it. I don’t know how much you’d want to read on the same topic, but I’m reminded too of Cross-Country by Robert Sullivan and another which I saw recently at the university library here, Onramps and Overpasses: A Cultural History of Interstate Travel by Dianne Perrier. A quick Worldcat search reveals that the FWPL has the former and TCU the latter; you can get access to TCU (and other libraries across Texas, public & academic alike) with a free TexShare card, by the way. (And while I’m kibbitzing, I might suggest you use Worldcat as a link for books — or other media items — instead of Amazon, but hey, that’s just me.)

    Also, thanks to you and Mary Ellen for the card and birthday gift, which arrived a few days ago. Glad I could see y’all once, and I hope you had a good time in England. I’m going to make a concerted effort to fix up my bike here in Columbia, and begin using the trails when the weather improves.

  2. Pingback: Border thoughts « Jim’s Bike Blog

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