(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JUNE 2006)While most of my friends -- the sane ones, anyway -- were buying houses and raising families in the 1970s, I was seeing the U.S.A. in a Volkswagen bus that I had customized to be a comfy home away from home.
I had globetrotted in previous years and realized after my return stateside that I knew more about the Far East than East L.A., so I embarked on a year-on, year-off, year-on exploration of the contiguous 48 states. I had seen Hawaii and Alaska traveling to and from Japan, and except for Kentucky and Montana, ended up driving through the other 46 states courtesy of the interstate highway system, which celebrated its 55th anniversary this week.
The system was the brainchild of President Eisenhower, who believed that the U.S. needed a first-class national road system for military transportation like the German Autobahn in the event of war with the Soviet Union.
That war was never fought, of course, but the system -- officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- kept growing and today includes 47,000 miles of highway, 14,750 interchanges, 55,500 bridges and 104 tunnels. But no traffic lights.
The interstate's impact on America, as well as my peripatetic travels, was profound.
From the interstates grew suburbs, service stations, motels and strip malls, not to mention the recreation vehicle boom and O.J. Simpson low-speed police chase.
There also have been downsides.
It could mean a death sentence for a rural burg if the interstate passed it by, most famously the necklace of towns along legendary Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. The highways also were nearly a fatal blow for America's decrepit passenger rail system. Gridlock entered the nation's vocabulary and stayed, while all of those service stations, motels and strip malls are not exactly eye candy.
And more recently, the interstates and the lengthy commutes they have encouraged have become a bane and a pain in the face of soaring gasoline prices.
All that said, I have many fond memories of my travels on America's interstates and the highways and byways and interesting places and people that the interstates took me to.
Here are a few:
* Waking in a sleeping bag at the edge of a pasture off of I-80 near Rock Springs, Wyoming and drowsily realizing that I was being watched -- by 10 or so curious wild horses that had surrounded my van.
* Sitting out a torrential downpour in the Florida Everglades near I-75 where I watched an embarrassed hawk get blown from a fence post in gale force winds and then flap back up onto its roost.
* Cresting the last hill on I-80 on a beautiful August morning and seeing the sun-draped vistas of Oakland and San Francisco emerge as Seals & Croft's "Summer Breeze" came on the radio.
* Standing next to my van on a corner in Winslow, Arizona off of I-40 as Jackson Browne crooned the lyrics "I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see . . . " on the tape player.
* Sitting in a San Francisco Muni bus a few blocks from I-280 that had stopped for pedestrians crossing Broadway at Columbus Avenue as I read a passage from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums in which Cody Pomeray was crossing Broadway at Columbus Avenue.
* Driving around a bend on a mountain pass off of I-25 in southeastern Colorado and coming upon a herd of real cattle being driven to their summer grazing range by real cowboys on real horses -- and a Honda ATV.
* Sitting at the same spot for five and a half hours in a blizzard on I-95 in Chester, Pennsylvania and thanking my lucky stars that I had started my drive with a full fuel tank.
* Having the driver's side mirror on my van sheared off by a low flying crow part way down a long downhill run on I-84 near the Idaho-Oregon state line, finally breaking to a stop and walking a half mile back uphill where the only sign of the bird were scattered feathers. I couldn't find the mirror.
* Breaking down on I-40 outside of Nashville, Tennessee and coasting off the highway, through an interchange and into the parking lot of an auto parts store where I swapped out a bum spark plug and was on the road again in less than an hour.
* Leaving I-90 and driving into a South Dakota hamlet (whose name I have forgotten) with an unpaved main street a but a single business, a cafe where I had the most delicious apple pie a la mode ever. The check, with a cup of coffee and refills, came to 50 cents.
* Picking up a hitchhiking teen and his border collie on I-80 at State Line, Nevada who told me a couple of hundred miles later than he was running away from home. I stopped for gas at Winnemucca and told him to call home. He did and we arranged for he and his dog to be picked up by his mother at the local sheriff's office.
* Hurtling down I-25 in New Mexico and aware that I could see a car-free 10 miles or so ahead, stepping on the gas and briefly hitting 100 miles an hour.
* Stopping for the night off of I-81 near Woodstock, New York where the temperature hit 35 degrees F below zero.
* Leaving I-25 and driving into Rifle, Colorado as the temperature hit 120 degrees F and not long after finding an exquisite waterfall tucked into a small canyon where I brought my body temperature down to below 98.6 degrees F.
* Having a lady toll collector on I-70 near Lawrence, Kansas proposition me as I paid her. I declined.
* Sprinting 3,250 miles from Oregon to Delaware on various interstates in 36 hours with stops only for gas and bathroom breaks.
* Seeing a lightning strike raise an enormous cloud of sand a mere quarter mile or so away as I crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats on I-80 in Utah.
* Binoculars in hand, watching a magnificent condor alight in the top branches of a Ponderosa pine above I-5 near Santa Clarita in Southern California.
* Spacing out in the intense heat later the same day and leaving my wallet atop a vending machine at a gas station off of I-5 near Coalinga in Central California, driving 100 miles before realizing what I had done, backtracking and recovering the wallet.
* Going on a slow-motion, dawn-to-dusk trip down an unpaved, deeply rutted and totally unmarked road from I-80 in Wyoming into northwestern Colorado and seeing no sign of human habitation for the entire 80-mile trip. As well as one of the most beautiful sunsets in my memory.
* Being waved off of I-10 west of Yuma, Arizona by a California Highway Patrol officer because of dangerously high desert winds. I spent the evening at a roadhouse with a bar with embedded silver dollars and a honky-tonk jukebox to die for taking turns buying rounds of beers, swapping stories and dancing with a delightful group of strangers that included truckers, bikers and vacationing retirees.