"Life does not happen on the interstate."

Subtitled "a journey into America". A 1982 book by William Least Heat-Moon, about a long, meandering cross-country road trip through various small towns and off the beaten path parts of the United States, eliciting stories from the people, from the land, and from himself. Heat-Moon deliberately traveled, in his old pickup truck, on roads that were, once upon a time, marked in blue on maps.

My Rand McNally has such roads marked red or gray, I think - two of the larger and more famous of these roads are Route 66 and Highway 61, but the unfamous ones are even cooler.

I did this in July of 1999 - took my old 1971 Volkswagen Camper Bus across the country from Raleigh, NC to Los Angeles. The Rule? No major interstate highways. No road with more than 2 lanes. This was a good rule in the Bus, because with its carb in perfect tune, and zero headwind, the 1600cc 60hp air-cooler engine could only push the crackerbox body forward at around 60 miles an hour. This meant modern, interstate highway was a deathtrap. Why, you may ask - well, the bowwaves off of 18 wheelers and the crosswinds would actually blow me off the road. Small, rural highways meant that I could cruise at 55mph in quiet and comfort

It was the best roadtrip I've ever taken. Instead of 5 days of suspended animation in the Geography of Nowhere, the was a real trip, with different landscapes, different senses of place. The forgotten places of "fly-over country" came alive. And I was left with two startling conclusions/confirmations:

  1. America is fucking beautiful.

  2. There are two Americas.

Almost any interstate highway is a wasteland. It can even be a wasteland in the middle of great beauty, but when you grade a roadbed, lay down concrete and aggregates, put in the guardrails and the right-of-way fencing, you discover that you're driving in a kind of linear prison camp, and that the illusion of freedom that you're feeling is just that, an illusion.

But the backroad is the pure product. When you pull over to a diner, or a gas station, people notice the out of state plates. They are shocked and delighted that you've chosen to come through their town. They want to talk to you about what it's like where you're from, and where you're going.

And the middle part of the nation is so beautiful - not "holy shit Grand Canyon" beautiful, but green, lush, fertile. Crested with buttes and tablelands, so green that it's like the soil wants to feed you.

But there's also the feeling of the backlot, like the cities on both coasts are on stage, where the action is, and that here in the middle folks are keeping food on the table, keeping the lights on and the water running, and that everyone seems to take it for granted. They know that they aren't as cool, aren't as fancypants, and they resent it and are stubbornly proud of it at the same time. I know something about this, my being an escapee from the heart of the Appalachians.

It was a revelation. Almost more of a religious experience than a roadtrip.

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