The Interstate

Ah, the modern highway. The slickest achievement since the wheel was invented. In fact, it’s almost like the wheel was invented for the highway, but it took somewhere around 6,000 years for the modern paved wonder to find it’s perfect counterpart where the rubber meets the road.

If the Romans had combustible engines in their chariots, with 400hp of torque driving those wheels instead of 4hp on hoofs, their rocky roads would have been paved a long time ago. They would have figured out the technology to make the Apian Way into a four-lane chariot superhighway. And the construction barrels on I-285 in Atlanta would be gone by now.

There are only a few things that I remember in vivid technicolor from when I was just a young kid. I’m talking mid to late 60s. I remember dropping an infield fly on a baseball field in McDonough under the lights. I remember hitting the lotto in a game of spin the bottle and getting my first kiss from a real 13-year-old woman. I remember her name but I’m not telling.

Then, I remember standing on the bridge over I-75 looking at the bulldozers at work when the interstate first came through Henry County.

My dad and I got in the old Chevy truck and took a ride just to see the highway construction. It wasn’t like him to burn gas for no good reason.

But there was something about the interstate highway system that captured the imagination of men like my dad. We drove down Simpson Mill Road, a red dust storm in our wake. We hit the blacktop at GA 20 and turned toward McDonough.

GA 20 was just a two-bit, two-lane highway at the time. We pulled off on the grassy shoulder and walked up to the bridge, which was built just for the interstate. Down below, in the distance to the south, the pavement was coming our way.

If this had been an Andy and Opie moment, the conversation might have gone something like this.

“Gosh, Paw, what are they doing down there?”

“Well, you see son, they’re building what’s called an interstate highway.”

“What’s an innerstayed highway?”

“In-ter-state. It means those men and machines down there are building a road that goes from way down in Florida all the way up through to the very tip-top of Michigan. They’re building it through Georgia and Tennessee and Kentucky and Ohio. It just keeps on going and going so far it goes plumb outta sight.”

“Do people in Florida want to go to Michigan?”

“Well, naw. I reckon not. But one day they’ll be a whole flock of folks from places like Michigan and Ohio who’ll be wanting to travel down to Florida for the winter.”

“So, that’s why we need a really long highway?”

Well, one reason is as good as another, I suspect.”

It took a lot of years to string together all 1,786.47 miles of pavement we know and love as I-75. Miami to Sault Saint Marie in the UP of Michigan on the Maple Leaf border. The last holdout was a small stretch around Lake Allatoona just south of Cartersville, Georgia.

Yes sir. The interstate highway grid across this country is a fine thing. You can travel north to south, east to west, from one end of the mountains to the other end of the prairies in just a matter of days. A few pit stops along the way, and you can get close to about anywhere you want to go in good old America.

Except through Atlanta.

I drove I-85 up to I-75 the other day to go see Laura, Eric and my grandkids up in Holly Springs. I know that’s no big deal for many of you who do the interstate dance on a regular basis. But these days, for this old man, a trip up the interstate tends to make me just a little bit weary.

I left work early on Friday afternoon to get a head start. I know what the north side of I-75 work traffic looks like every day. Fridays can be even worse.

I’m not an old and feeble driver, mind you. I can handle the interstate speeds. I can adjust to all the lane changes. I recognize the idiot drivers for what they are. I can even keep my cool when Mr.-SUV-on-his-phone-guy passes me, gets back in my lane, and slows down right in front of me for the 14th time.

I’m not even completely anti-interstate as you might think from some of the comments I’ve made about road trips in which I say things like you can see nothing of any real value from the fast lane. I know that’s only a partial and somewhat biased truth.

Take the Titan I Missile that stands along I-75 in Cordele, Georgia. At 98 feet tall, this is the real deal. As an early part of the US military defense system, the Titan Missiles were designed to carry thermonuclear warheads and to be fired from underground silos in the event of a nuclear attack.

I’ve driven past the Titan seems like a million times in my life. You can see it right from the interstate. You can’t see it from any other highway. And if you happen take a pit stop at the Gas ‘n Go, and you load up on Krystal burgers for the road, you can stand right next to this monster.

The thing about the interstate, especially around Atlanta, is the unknown delay that will bite you in the keester almost every time. The north-bound lane on I-85 can get choked up as far south as Moreland. There’s nothing about Moreland to cause a traffic delay other than perhaps folk slowing down to pay tribute to Lewis Grizzard.

NASCAR I-285 is a roll of the dice every time. Construction projects. A smoking radiator on a worn-out Buick stalled in the left lane. A row of banged up cars surrounded by emergency vehicles. The one I remember that made the evening news was an overturned cattle truck on the north side. My Lord, loose cows on the interstate.

I dealt with the traffic going and coming. Creeping along at five miles an hour for miles. I never really felt free until I got south of Newnan on the way home.

I exited on US 27 toward Pine Mountain. The old farm land. Rolling hills. The Dollar Store at the city limit sign.

When I got into town, I noticed an unusual number of vehicles for a quiet Saturday evening. By the time I got even with the liquor store I came to dead stop. I was in the middle of a traffic jam leading up to the front gate at Callaway Gardens. A mile-long line of cars waiting to get into the Pumpkin Patch.

I could see the traffic light a quarter mile ahead of me. I went rogue. I busted out into the empty oncoming lane and made my way to the front of the left turn lane. I detoured up through FDR State Park and home.

If only there was an interstate to my house, I could have avoided the whole mess.

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