Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Searching for old roads to suit my Royal Enfield

Old fence lines a back-road field.
Vacationing with my mother-in-law posed a challenge.

"Only one challenge?" you ask. Don't be a smart aleck.

Ruth grew up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin, and nothing pleases her more than a drive through the countryside.

Could we make the drive from our vacation cabin in North Carolina back to our home in Florida using only "country roads"?

I wondered too, since someday I would like to make a trip like that on my Royal Enfield Bullet. At the speed of a Bullet, the Interstates are out of the question.

So, is it possible to drive cross-country in America and stay on quaint, "country" roads?

The answer, probably, is "no," as Tom Vanderbilt makes clear in his review of "The Big  Roads" by Earl Swift. Swift writes about the building of the great highways Americans know so well.

Here's how Swift described one road trip on the major highways: "We watched the countryside pass without actually experiencing it."

That is what  mother-in-law Ruth wanted to avoid. From the back seat her daughter — my wife Bonnie — attempted to plot the side roads with maps, GPS and her smart phone. We wanted to go slow enough to smell the roses but still get to Florida in two days.

Driving on the beach; at 10 mph, this is the really slow way to travel.
We did stay off the Interstates, mostly. We even drove for a time on the beach, in Daytona Beach (at 10 mph).

But, by and large, it didn't work. As Swift writes in his book, and Vanderbilt makes clear in his review for The New York Times, it isn't just the Interstates that conspire against any traveler anxious to experience the real America. What we think of as the "old roads" are gone — and they disappeared a long time ago.

The culprit is not President Eisenhower's Interstate system, as bored modern motorists so often complain.

In 1916, American roads, Swift writes, were chaotic — worse than roads in any major nations outside China and Russia. Carl Fisher had developed  the mighty Lincoln Highway, the first marked coast-to-coast route  across the nation. It boasted that motorists would be able to average the unheard of speed of 20 mph.

Off the beaten path, America's past still softly breathes.
But by 1926 this had changed, with through routes established in a national grid by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921. Speeds quickly exceeded 20 mph and, in so doing, they left much of the original America in the dust.

That legacy continues. Bonnie wrestled with the map and her electronic gizmos, trying to keep us on "Old 441" or "Old Dixie Highway" when everything road planners have done for 90 years conspired to put us back on some through route to Florida.

The old roads lacked signage, gas stations, hotels, restaurants and, not infrequently, bridges across rivers. Why should communities pay to maintain decaying bridges on old roads when there are perfectly fine spans on the big roads?

The answer is that they won't. Not in this day and age.

Abandoned roadside bait shop: where ice machines go when they retire.
But I took comfort in the fact that many towns did take the trouble to label a route "historic." Following these, we saw a lot of little downtowns, straining to keep the last cafe, the little public library and maybe a small museum open.

Ironically, the more Americans use their big roads, the more they treasure the old ones. These deserve to be saved.

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