Maybe you’ve just finished a copy of Blue Highways and are itchin’ to get out on the open road. Or you’ve heard your grandpa or grandma talk for years about, “how we always took the old road, ‘cause we knew it’d get us there” and wondered what that was like. Perhaps you just want to travel somewhere, at your own pace, and not see a Wendy’s or McDonald’s or “travel center” at every turn.
In that case, let’s get off the damn Interstate highways and take the old road! Get away from the faceless concrete slabs and take a trip through some real country, and maybe find that fabled America of years ago.
The first step is research. Many of the major Interstate highways replaced existing mainline US highway routes, so those are usually a good place to start. As an example, let’s say you’ve heard about the old Dixie Highway that used to start at the tip of Michigan and ran down to Florida. A little Internet browsing reveals that part of it existed between Cincinnati and Detroit – what used to be old US Highway 25, before it was decommissioned, replaced by Interstate 75, and left to fade away into a half-forgotten memory.
Next, you’ll need to assemble some maps. Start with a good road atlas; I usually use a current Rand McNally. This, naturally, will show you the roads as they are today, but it’ll come in handy if you get lost along the way. Of course, not much of the old road may be found on modern maps, but we’ll take care with a bit of intuition and detective work!
If the old road is shown at all on a current road atlas, it’s usually as a nondescript gray line that tends, all too frequently, to disappear underneath a big blue Interstate marking. This is where you fire up your Internet browser again and use one of the more popular map sites, such as Mapquest or Yahoo! Maps. Mapquest used to be the preferable choice until they removed their “big map” function, so I suggest using Yahoo! Maps. I’ve found the level of detail on Yahoo to be better and more accurate than Mapquest’s. Using a search engine will come in handy for looking up any information available about the old road you’re tracing. There’s also another resource for road sleuths – the Usenet newsgroup misc.transport.road, where you can get almost any road-related question answered.
In our example, with a little more Internet research it’s pretty easy to find out that US 25 was once routed over Reading Road in Cincinnati. Glancing at a current map of Cincy and following Reading Road, you'll see it turns into a small gray line leading north out of the city, hugging the Interstate like a neglected friend as it heads toward Dayton. Here’s where our journey back in time will start!
Now’s the time to use Yahoo! Maps to get a detailed map of that part of Cincinnati, and once you’ve located the old road that you saw on the paper map, start following it north out of the city. It’s usually a good idea to narrow the map’s focus down to street level, so that you don’t lose the road. Frequently many of the old roads of interest are marked, on these online maps, with their old names. In our example, former US 25 is actually marked as “Old US 25” or “Dixie Highway” almost all the way, making it one of the easier old roads to follow.
Cities can be a problem, as the old routes were usually routed over city streets with lots of twists and turns, but today there are no signs to assist you while driving. Here’s where it’s helpful to refer back to the road atlas, perhaps shift the online map focus outbound, and rejoin the road you’re tracking. Then, it’s fairly easy to backtrack and connect up the two sections to find the old road’s path through the city. If it’s still a mystery, you can at least plan a route through the city that’ll get you back onto the old road. Another helpful hint is that the old major US highways often followed railroads, so that bit of road close to the tracks is a good candidate for the route you’re seeking.
Tracing the path of an old road is almost as much fun as actually driving it, as the old route sometimes seems to try to hide in places, forcing you to ferret it out. Often, you almost have to try to think like the old road planners, figuring out how they would’ve routed the new Federal highway through the town or countryside. This is part of the fun, where you get to play Sherlock Holmes of the road, with your clues and a pinch of deduction!
Then comes the actual drive itself. You’ve traced the old road, printed out and marked your maps, and are ready to go. As you drive along, the city begins to thin out, and the road starts to wind through the country at last. There’s nothing like the feeling of the open road, and navigating by your wits, instead of someone doing it for you with interchanges and exit signs.
You begin to actually see things, instead of just cars and trucks whizzing by you at super speed. You go through small towns where life is still slower … town squares that force you to navigate around them as the locals go about their business. The sight of an interesting small shop, or a (non-chain) restaurant advertising “home-cooked” food, reminds you that it’s time for a break from the road … and you realize, as you will often, that you’d have missed this out on the Interstate. It’ll be like this all the way to your chosen destination.
You might get lost a few times along the way – but so what? Consult the maps, ask someone a question, or even hop on the Interstate to get you back on track, if necessary. As someone once said, the journey is the reward, and there are rewards aplenty on a road trip through history!
Moon, William Least-Heat, Blue Highways. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1999 (reprint).
Rand McNally, The Road Atlas, various editions. Skokie, Illinois: Rand McNally and Company.