Today's Interstate Highway System -- all 42,793 miles of it -- was a gleam in Congress's collective eye in 1938 when it called on the government to study the feasibility of a network of six national toll roads.
The toll roads wouldn't work, the feds concluded. They advocated a non-toll system of 26,700 miles. Nothing happened. In 1944, Congress called for the designation of a national system of up to 40,000 miles. Nothing happened. In 1947, the highway bureaucrats selected the first 37,700 miles for the system. Other than that, nothing happened. In 1952, Congress authorized a token amount.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower decided enough was enough. He pushed Congress to pass a new Federal-Aid Highway Act, calling for the federal government to pay for 90 percent of the system out of its gasoline and other motor vehicle user taxes. He insisted it be on a pay-as-you-go basis so the system would not add to federal deficits. Now, 50 years and $125 billion later, we have a nation laced with what is formally called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
America on the Interstate is America homogenized. That may sound bad, but it's not. These are not your father's or grandfather's highways. In their day, most highways went down the main street of every city and town. At the end of the day one would stop at the first motel on the edge of town that displayed a VACANCY sign.
Today, you can zip from coast to coast in about 67 hours non-stop if you have the stamina of Hercules and no need of sleep. Otherwise, it's five days, two drivers taking turns and a stop every night. Last week, my wife and I chose the latter, driving a new car from Washington, D.C. to our retreat on the northern coast of California. (That sounds odd, but it made economic sense.) We were on I-40 from Knoxville, Tennessee to Barstow, California.
The Interstate skirts all cities and towns or goes straight through them, with plenty of on-and-off ramps to get to the clusters of overnight accommodations. They are easy to recognize by the tall steel masts holding their signs: Holiday Express, Hilton Garden Hotel, LaQuinta, Best Western, Exxon, Shell, Chevron and virtually every known brand of fast-food restaurant. The hotels/motels are mostly high-rise buildings today, six to eight stories. They are clean, modern with inviting lobbies (and free Continental breakfast). The rooms have good beds and pleasant decor. At the fast-food restaurants, it's hard -- but not impossible -- to find healthful dishes. Even when one does, however, they usually come heaped, unbidden, with French fries.
Just ahead of each interchange is a series of signs noting, in order, the brands of lodging, gasoline and food to be found at that stop. One happy byproduct is that, until west of Oklahoma City, there are virtually no billboards to mar the view. From that point on through New Mexico and into Arizona there are numerous large billboards, nearly all of them for Indian "trading posts."
There are plenty of amusing names on the map to entertain you while the miles roll by on I-40. For example, Spot and Only are neighboring Tennessee hamlets. Arizona has Two Guns and Holy Moses Wash.
Along the way, much is made of the old Highway 66, the Route 66 of song (as in "You'll Get Your Kicks on Route 66"). This went from Chicago to Los Angeles. Interstate-40 more-or-less follows its route from Oklahoma City to Barstow. Every now and then there is a white-on-brown historical sign noting that Highway 66 is just off the Interstate to the left or right. We sampled it in the California desert at Newberry Springs. It is a few hundred yards of concrete paving. Very romantic. In truth, the old 66 was largely two-lane and slow going. The towns it went through featured seedy taverns, tired motels, and forgettable food. Not the stuff of legend.
If you have begun to doubt that this is one land, what with "identity" politics, take a cross-country trip on I-40. It will restore your faith that we are all Americans, and you will have the treat of seeing a vast and changing landscape roll by.