Jun. 29, 2012

So This is Nebraska

by Ted Kooser

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

"So This Is Nebraska" by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (books by this author), born in Lyon, France (1900), the author of The Little Prince (1943). Saint-Exupéry was also a passionate aviator, and he turned his fascination with flying into best-selling novels, including Southern Mail (1929) and Night Flight (1932).

It was on this day in 1956 that President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act, which established the Interstate Highway System.

The Interstate Highway System had been in the works for a while. During World War I, the Army determined that the condition of national roads needed to be improved for national defense, so they produced a map for the government of the major routes they felt were important in the event of war. In 1938, President Roosevelt drew out a map of "superhighways" to cross the country.

The American public had its first taste of the a "superhighway" system in 1939, at the New York World's Fair. The most popular exhibit there was the General Motors Futurama ride, which showed a vision of the future in 1960. Fairgoers sat in chairs that moved through a diorama of the future America, where everyone owned a car and the entire country was connected by freeways. On these freeways, the lanes going in one direction were separated from the traffic coming from the other direction. Drivers could go up to 50 mph, and could travel from one coast to the other without a single traffic light. These ideas were so exciting that 28,000 people attended the Futurama exhibit every day.

As a general during World War II, Eisenhower was impressed by Germany's autobahn system, and he decided that the United States needed something comparable. After the war, the economy was booming, and Eisenhower decided the time was right to push through the Interstate Highway System. It was the largest public works project in American history. It took longer than expected to build—35 years instead of 12—and it cost more than $100 billion, about three times the initial budget. But the first coast-to-coast highway, Interstate 80, was completed in 1986, running from New York City to San Francisco.

It was a great boon for hotel and fast-food chains, which sprung up by interstate exits. It was also a boon for suburban living, since commuting was faster and easier than before.

But it was not necessarily good for American literature. When John Steinbeck took a cross-country trip with his dog and wrote Travels with Charley (1962), he only traveled on the interstate for one section, on I-90 between Erie, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois. He wrote: "These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and [...] at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951, and by the time it was published, in 1957, construction had begun on the Interstate Highway System. In 1969, shortly before his death, Kerouac said: "You can't do what I did any more. I tried in 1960, and I couldn't get a ride. Cars going by, kids eating ice cream, people with hats with long visors driving, and, in the backseat, suits and dresses hanging. No room for a bum with a rucksack."

William Least Heat-Moon wrote Blue Highways (1982) about the cross-country trip he took after losing his job and separating from his wife. He took only back roads. He wrote: "Life doesn't happen along interstates. It's against the law."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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