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May 15th, 2018

May QuickThrottle Column

My column for May focuses on the final segment of the US Interestate System being finished later this summer, almost 62 years after it was started -- and the need to keep riding the "non-Interstates" or the "Blue Highways" as the wonderful travel writer William Least Heat Moon called them... I'm missing riding as much as I used to, it seems ages since I've done a long trip. I should probably heed my own advice a bit more...
I love maps – especially older ones. The ones you once got at the fillin’ station. On those older maps, Interstate Highways were more often than not drawn as red lines, US Highways were in black, and secondary roads were drawn in blue. That’s why those wonderful, windy, two-lane, backroads are often called “Blue Highways”. And for me, I’ve always felt more at home riding the blue highways than on the red ones. Unfortunately, over time most maps, including Harley’s Road Atlas, (assuming folks even read maps now since everyone GPS’s their way) now show the Interstate’s in blue and the US highways in red, and those wonderful “other” roads in black.  “Black Highways” just doesn’t sound as evocative to me, so I’ll still call these wonderful meanderers the “Blues”.

Now I don’t dislike the other road colors by any means, it’s just not my preference when I have a choice. I’ll ride the freeway if I have to but give me a wandering side road and that’s where I’ll go even when it takes longer. Back in my younger days when I had the knees for skiing I used to love bombing down a groomed blue or black run as fast as I my thighs and knees could stand, but I had a friend who was much more interested in skiing the green meandering runs at a slower pace. His favorite saying was “why go down a blue run when there is a perfectly fine green run right here that goes to the same place?” And while the freedom one feels skiing is very much akin to the freedom one feels on a motorcycle; my philosophy has changed. “Why take the freeway when there is a perfectly fine backroad here?”

I’ve been trying to gradually convince people to the wisdom of this philosophy – riding the blues and blacks, even in every-day situations. My buddy Henry just a year ago went to the HD riding school on their Vets Ride Free program, got his license, and has already bought two bikes. He moved from Cincinnati to LA and now to the Desert to escape traffic and crowds, yet he’s still taking the freeway to work – until I showed him a nice backroad almost directly to his office, with two stop signs, some great hills and curves, and only a few lights. Yeah, it’s a 35-mile commute rather than a 12-mile one, but he’s sure in a better mood when he gets to work.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the interstate on a bike either – in fact one of the most gorgeous roads anywhere is the I-70 from Cove Fort, Utah to Green River, UT, and again up over the Rockies east from Aspen to Denver, and in our neck of the woods I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass is wonderful – and will be getting better on the East side of the pass once the construction is done (but I still love WA-410 and US-12 more).
Indeed, the entire concept of the Interstate Highway system is a marvel if you think about it. Can you imagine the old windy narrow backroads having to contend with today’s traffic and vehicles? It wouldn’t happen. When I ride old US-10 east of Cle Elum, WA, or old US-66 in the deserts of California and Arizona, or US 30 across Idaho, trying to imagine the amount of traffic on I-90 or I-40 squeezing on to those roads is mindboggling.

It was in 1956, 62 years ago, that President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act creating our modern Interstate road system. There was a lot of foresight back then, and we have to thank him and Congress for enabling the construction and maintenance of this system. And later this year, sometime in September – 62 years later, this country’s most famous civil-engineering project will finally complete construction.

You laugh – because we all know construction season never ends. The giant project up on I-90 over Snoqualmie pass for example, or that stretch of I-5 from Fife past the Tacoma Dome that has been under perpetual construction since -- well since they stared building it back in the 1960s.  But seriously, the last section of the original proposed Interstate Highway system should finally be finished. It’s back on the east coast. I-95, the country’s most used highway, will finally run as one continuous road between Miami and Maine. The gap on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border will be closed, turning I-95 into an unbroken stream of concrete more than 1,900 miles long. In doing so it marks the completion of the original US interstate system.  I suppose you could say “typical government project – took way too long..” but when you consider the size and scope of the entire interstate system, I don’t think it’s all that bad.

And it’s done more to transform this country than probably any other civil engineering project, including the BPA and TVA dam projects, and the space program. Where would we be without the interstate system to transport us and the goods we all use? It’s safe to say it would be an entirely different country. My enviro friends will probably say it would have been better if the interstate highway system had never been built, it exacerbated the car culture, destroyed the land, and causes global warming, but I disagree.

You see, by building the interstate system, it took all that traffic off the wonderful blue and black byways that crossed this country before it was built – roads that are still there if you take the time to find them. Use the interstate for what it is – use it to drive to work, deliver your products, and get from A-B fairly quickly. But appreciate and love the back roads for what they were and what they still are – the slow-moving stream that winds through the woods, over hill and dale, through the small towns, and across the mountains. The interstate defined America, but you won’t find America there. You’ll really only find America on the blue and black highways of the old maps. This summer go ride some blues!

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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