Blue highways and roarin’ interstates

Some call it pure insanity, but for spring break this year we packed most of the family in the minivan and logged nearly 4,000 miles on the Great American Road.

Well, to be honest, it wasn’t so great a road until Kansas or so. It’s sad to say that, in the many miles we traveled, the absolute worst roads were the ones right here in the Colorado mountains. Some of the nicest we traveled were in Arkansas and Mississippi, where stereotype has it no one has money for anything. Granted, they don’t have the extremes of heat and cold – and truck-tire chains – that tear up our roads. But still, it was an eye-opener to see how other states maintain their highways.

I have mixed feelings about the big road trip anymore. There was a time when driving from Colorado to California or the East Coast was a wonderful adventure with few drawbacks. Now, with gas in the $3.40 range most of the way there and back, I figure it cost over $500 in fuel to do this trip. Still cheaper than flying all five of us down to Alabama and then renting a car to get to Florida, but if I’d done the trip in, say, 2003 — when gas was $1.50/gallon, the cost would have been halved. What happened to all that cheap oil we’re supposed to get after spending a few trillion invading Iraq?

Oh well, we figured better to do it now than wait until summer when gas is supposed to top $4/gallon. And when it comes right down to it, it was still worth it – and better than flying. We were able to run our own itinerary – driving through the night on the big legs of the trip – carry a ton of crap both necessary and superfluous, and we didn’t have to subject the whole family to X-rays and pat-down searches.

One thing driving gets you that flying doesn’t is a look at this country of ours. After visiting in-laws in rural Alabama (where we rode golf carts through the woods and watched wild turkeys being cleaned), we drove south to Florida along what are sometimes called “blue highways” – those non-interstate highways that let you see into folks’ backyards along the way. Along with 700 million churches of all size and denomination, we saw beautiful Southern homes of the antebellum variety; tumbledown shacks simply abandoned by their owners; a plethora of non-chain restaurants and country stores; and, novel for we high-country dwellers, actual black people and Bible-Belt Republicans.

Looking at some of the more unsavory areas we drove through and being told of the extreme summer heat, our 16-year-old simply asked: “Why do people live here? Why don’t they just leave?”

That morphed into an interesting discussion about what real poverty looks like and how limited that can make one’s choices. It also, I hope, gave our kids a great understanding and appreciation of the kind of life they live here in the mountains at the same time we took pains to explain to them that home is where you make it, rich or poor. Our relatives in Alabama had no high-speed wireless Internet or nearby ski mountain, but they had more land than we could ever dream of owning up here. I envied the laid-back lifestyle and the utter lack of pretense to be found anywhere I looked. Even so, I know I couldn’t endure those humid, 100+ days.

It’s good to be home, and we were thrilled not to have to drive back into the mountains during a late-spring blizzard. It maybe a while before we embark on such an epic journey, though. If I want to go turkey hunting with my father-in-law, I may just have to break down and buy a plane ticket into Birmingham next time.

Vail Trail

April, 2008

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