Honk if you love rest stops!

If you saw this summer’s children’s movie, “Cars,” you might have come away with the impression that automobiles can talk and there is just no role that actor Owen Wilson won’t take if the price is right. You might also have left the theater angry at the interstate highway system (and Interstate 40 in particular), because of the way these great swaths of asphalt bypassed small hamlets across America and turned them into ghost towns.
At least that’s one of the morals that “Cars” offers. The film even has an animated map to make sure that no one misses the point that the actual I-40 is the reason that the fictional Radiator Springs is now the lonely home of over-the-hill hippie vans, loser low riders, and cantankerous old Hudson Hornets.
I happen to love Route 66 — one of those classic two-lane roads that were made all but obsolete by the interstate highway system — and have traveled all or parts of it three times with my wife. My favorite patch of asphalt in the world just might be the remaining stretch of Route 66 in Arizona that links the sleepy city of Kingman with the downright somnambulant village of Seligman. When you drive west through the Hualapai Valley at twilight, the desert sun disappears like a hot coal behind the Black Mountains in the distance, and the thin road is as flat and straight as a runway.
But make no mistake, I like the interstate highways, too — a public works project that actually turned 50 this very summer. That’s right, it was in June 1956 that the President best known for D-Day and golf — Dwight D. Eisenhower –signed the bill that authorized the construction of an interstate highway system.
Vermont would be a different world were it not linked to Boston and southern New England via Interstate 89 and Interstate 91. The demographics tell the story. In 1960, the state had 390,000 residents, an increase of merely 46,000 people since 1900. Yet in the next two decades, the population would increase by 121,000 people, topping 500,000 residents in 1980. In 1960, three out of every four Vermonters were born here. By 1980, it was barely three out of five.
Why did the population grow so dramatically in this period, when it had been almost stagnant for the previous 60 years?
In part, it was the interstate highways. The final stretch of I-89 was completed in 1967, and four-lane highways linked the state with southern New England and Canada. Suddenly it made sense for other companies to join IBM in Chittenden County, and for thousands (yes, thousands) of hippies to migrate here in their VW Microbuses and beetles. Often interstates lead to homogeneity, but here in Vermont they actually made us more diverse. Arguably, we were transformed more in the 1960s than in any other decade in the last 200 years. We were, quite literally, pulled into the modern era by those wide bands of pavement that made it possible to drive between Boston and Burlington — or Hartford, Conn. and Burlington — in less than four hours.
Now, like everything in this world that isn’t chocolate, the highways did not bring exclusively joy to the Green Mountains. Along with new pavement came neon and sprawl and people like me. I don’t believe the interstates on their own imperiled our agrarian heritage or our dairy industry. Actually, I imagine that dairy farmers would be even worse off if I-89 and I-91 hadn’t made it possible for all that milk to wind its way south. But there’s no question that Vermont is a lot more crowded.
Moreover, the interstates replaced the idiosyncrasies of the mom-and-pop motor court with the bland predictability of the chain motel. The individuality of the diner was replaced by the recognizable fast food franchise.
Nevertheless, more places are thriving than dying in this country as a result of the interstates. And so even though I’ve gotten my share of kicks on Route 66, I am mighty glad that we have I-40, too.
Happy Birthday, you big sprawling rivers of pavement.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 16, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.