I’m not a big Interstate guy, and would normally be filling this post with wise cracks about the boring drive due west on I-20 from Atlanta to West Monroe, La that made up my first day on this trip back to the edge. Instead, I’m going to recognize an appreciate the massive federal project that is the interstate highway system.
There are nearly 48,000 miles of road in the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and we’ve spent almost half a trillion dollars building it. It’s the second largest. China is first. China. Here’s the difference: we authorized the system in 1956, and the the system as authorized, was basically finished 35 years later, with some portions never built at all. Why? Because folks had a say. Some communities didn’t want it, some states didn’t want to pay their allocation, some grafty sonsofbitches wanted to make sure their pastures became rest centers. A-mer-i-cuh. The only thing central about our system was the decorated military hero who said (I imagine) “the goddamn Germans nearly kicked our asses because they had straight roads, we need to fix that.” After that, we legislated and voted and handled the project democratically. So it’s the second largest, but it is still the best, because it is ours, not some government’s.
High horse dismounted, I continue. It is possible to appreciate the country from the Interstate, it’s just a bit more challenging. You have to set you mind to it. You have to look for changes in the topography and the flora. You have to be intentional about seeing things that make you think. In short, you have to resist the hypnotic rhythm of the expansion joints and look somewhere other than at the bumper of the semi in front of you.
I crossed the tops of three states and started on a fourth — Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — today. I rolled out of the tailings of the Appalachians, rumbled through the pine thickets of northern Alabama and Mississippi and coasted down the flat delta farmland of the great old river itself. I crossed the Tombigbee Waterway — which is American for “I don’t want to go another 200 miles to the Mississippi River, dig a damn ditch here.” Famously eschewed as Federal pork, and threatened by none other than President Jimmy Carter himself with elimination, the Georgia democrat was swayed by what else, the people. Because this is America, and when overwhleming support showed up on his doorstep, the old Georgia democrat did what we do here. He changed his damn mind. So we have a $2 billion series of ditches, locks and rivers that connnect the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico — which is also accomplished sans investment, a few hundred miles west via the Mississippi river. Here’s the best part — we put up $2 billion and according to Troy State University (hey, this isn’t football this is economics) we’ve gotten back over $63 Billion. Apparently there are periods of drought (see 1988) in which the Mississippi River can become impassable for freight, in which case — hello Tombigbee!
Anyway, I didn’t know any of this when I crossed the Tombigbee at 66 mph, but I thought about it and then I googled it and it’s interesting and worth knowing. Here’s something else worth knowing: after you cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg (do your own work on all the history on the siege of Vicksburg, etc) you pass the Poverty Point World Unesco Heritage Site. They don’t give out world Heritage Site designations as a prize with dinner. This is a big deal. Turns out there is a settlement created by mound building natives between 1650 and 700 b-freaking-c in the Mississippi delta just west of the river. Apparently these people ranged over a 100 mile area of the Delta and they built this 900+ acre site in northeastern Louisanna for some reason. Seriously, no one actually know what the site is. Could be religious, could be economic trade related, could be a nice view. But long before Ike thought about roads, there were people here thinking about something along the river and now, if you pay attention, you will see that and you can exit off and check it out. But you have to pay attention.
There is obviously tons more history and facts and cocktail chatter available between Atlanta and West Monroe, but the point is the Interstate isn’t all bad. And a big reason for heading out to ride the edge of the country for me is to pay attention and see for myself. So, even the getting there to get started part of the trip can be valuable to me if I pay attention. I promise to try harder. Tomorrow I keep to Ike’s road west, hopefully all the way to Pecos and then to Balmorhea State Park, but if I fall short, I bet it’s because I found something unexpected.