The All Too Averaged American Road

By Timothy Butler | Posted at 11:23 PM

While traveling from place to place by car is hardly the glamorous thing it once was, it certainly has grown easier. As I went through Southern Missouri twice this week – once going down the Interstate and once back up via the remains of Route 66, I wondered if easier had any relation to better.

To be sure, the Interstate System, which happened to begin in St. Charles, MO, outside of St. Louis, does a lot of good. I appreciate how quickly things can flow across the nation in no small part because there are these huge, efficient arteries. When I click on a “1-Click” purchasing button on Amazon.com and see a package show up two days later, I can thank the Interstates for allowing UPS to ferry things to and fro with amazing rapidity.

But like most things efficient, there is a great cost to that efficiency, a cost a drive down Route 66 demonstrates amply. The main corridor these days to get from St. Louis to Springfield, and the rest of Southwestern Missouri, is I-44, which comes typically within a mile of the famed old “Mother Road” throughout most of Missouri. Yet, the scenery of the two highways is starkly different even if the locale is not.

As beautiful as the Ozark Mountains are while cruising down the Interstate, the freeway system has somewhat of an averaging effect on the geography. Routes are leveled out and cities are typically denoted primarily by the usual cluster of gas stations and fast food joints. Sure, there are some unique markers at each exit, but traveling an Interstate is far more about function than aesthetic form. One gets on the Interstate not typically to enjoy the ride, but to get from Point A to Point B.

It is the “Quickest, Fastest Route” in GPS mapping parlance.

What was striking about riding up to St. Louis on Route 66 was that while I had made the basic journey countless times over the years, this trip was entirely different. The road followed more of the natural terrain of the area, going gently up and down the beautiful hills rather than ripping through them. Ozark streams, so often missed on I-44 save for little green roadside signs that note the names, were actually visible on the lower, less solid bridges of the venerable old U.S. Highway.

Natural terrain was not all that appeared in a better light off the Interstate. Cities that generically dot the exits with McDonald’s and Conoco signs were suddenly far more real, unique places with interesting attractions and history.

The experience of something more interesting than the fast food Interstate is not a phenomenon limited to the Mother Road. Traveling from Indianapolis to St. Louis a few years back, I took a similar journey off of the usual I-70 route and onto its predecessor, U.S. Route 40.

Like 66 in Missouri, 40 in Illinois is far more scenic than its successor Interstate. Instead of mile after mile of relatively flat, even farm fields, I saw historic covered bridges, beautiful streams and interesting cities. The difference in this case was even more striking than my journey on 66: the scenery was not just more beautiful; it went from downright drab to marvelously fascinating.

Of course, if one is in a hurry, the Interstate System makes the most sense. But, on days where an extra hour or two over a course of a few hundred miles does not make a huge difference, why do we unthinkingly trade beauty and uniqueness for another helping of steady, industrial sameness?

Maybe part of the reason “seeing the USA” in your automobile has lost its mystique since the old Chevy commercials has less to do with the fact that cars are no longer novel and more to do with how we have flattened the experience of the drive. If the only highlight on a trip is the destination, the reason why many people would rather fly becomes rather obvious.

Easier and more efficient are not always best.

Perhaps pulling off the Interstate every once in awhile is just what we need to make traveling by car enjoyable again.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.