I’ll never forget the time Andrew and I drove cross-country with our world-traveled friend Peta, on her first trip to the United States in the nineteen seventies. Anticipating a rugged ride into the Wild West, she was singularly unimpressed with the reality of American highway travel. “Everything looks the same,” she complained, citing the HoJo’s restaurants and motor lodges with their ubiquitous orange roofs all along the Eastern highways and the Stuckey’s chain with their corn-syrup-filled pecan pies and log rolls regularly clogging the arteries through the South, Midwest, and Southwest. What blots on the magnificent landscape! Even as we argued with Peta, insisting that she would see wild aplenty as soon as we got off the Interstate, we couldn’t help agreeing with her.
The U.S Interstate Highway System has blasted through rugged rock and ridge, cutting out the sinuous curves that follow the natural contours of ridges, valleys and rivers, and replacing them with straight-arrow lines; leveling out the ups and downs to create a smooth, easy ride across the country; making it possible—as long as you have the gasoline—to cover long distances in a very short period of time. While I certainly appreciate what has been achieved by the construction and maintenance of these travel and transportation networks, I often try to imagine what it might have been to actually feel the topography, what the country looked like, and how different travel must have been before they existed—heck, before automobiles themselves existed.
When I’m on a long highway drive, especially on Interstate 91 through the Connecticut River Valley, I often wonder whether I would know where I was if I were to be dropped down at that very location in the past, say, during the colonial era. I realize that although I must have driven hundreds of times back and forth over the 100-miles of highway between the Pioneer Valley in South Deerfield, Massachusetts and the Upper Valley near White River Junction, Vermont, I still couldn’t describe with any precision the land I have travelled so often. The only natural landmark I can identify is the Connecticut River, since the Interstate runs parallel to it for much of that stretch. I know that there are hills and valleys along the way, because the car engine would strain at times, or a truck would barrel down behind me, forcing me over into the left lane, or I would suddenly be enveloped in a dense fog and have to slow down to a crawl or even pull over and stop until it cleared. But set me down at any point along the way without the highway signs to orient me, and I would be absolutely helpless.
I imagine myself surrounded by dense old-growth forest, trying to find a high overlook that would allow me to get a fix on my location; and then I imagine the journey on foot or by carriage that now takes me all of two hours, fortified by a travel mug of tea and a Ben and Jerry’s Heath Bar Crunch picked up at the convenience store in Putney, Vermont at the halfway point of my drive. The same ground covered by horse and carriage would have required at least one overnight stay at an inn, and perhaps would have been impassable in a snowy winter or a wet mud season. No wonder visits to distant friends and relations are so protracted and emotionally charged in 19th-century novels. For instance, when, in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet goes to visit her dear friend Charlotte after Charlotte has married Mr. Collins, she does not know when she might be able to see her again, so she stays as long as she can. Rather than consisting of a quick overnight or a weekend at best, visits in the days before automobile travel lasted weeks on end, sometimes months.
I once read something by Emily Dickinson in which she mentioned that, as youths, her brother and his friends spent their days rambling over the Mount Holyoke Range. To my shame, although I see those hills every day as I drive to the gas station or the supermarket, after having lived in the area for 23 years I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have actually set foot on them. I was going to ask for a GPS (or sat nav) for Christmas, but I’ve changed my mind. Time to get out the topo map and re-orient myself, not to manmade networks, whether satellites or highways, but to the features of the natural landscape of this beautiful planet we are so privileged to inhabit.