May 1, 2008 North on the National Defense Highway System

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Today I am driving north from Tennessee through Virginia in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.  Everywhere, spring is upon the land on this sunny, perfect day.  Pastures are intense green with new spring grass; black cattle grazing on the hillsides look like silhouettes punched out of the green.  Along the road, the striking pink blossoms of Redbud—the most beautiful of spring-flowering trees—are at or just past their peak of bloom.  Awoke to the dawn chorus of cardinals and robins and the panoply of other breeding birds singing so loudly it would rival the roar of the truck traffic going by as I now sit at a rest area picnic table (and, yes, I much prefer the birds to the trucks!).

The night before last I took a series of night flights from Seattle to Minneapolis to Atlanta to Chattanooga, catching several hours of sleep sitting up in my cramped window seat, flying coach (of course).  Upon reaching Chattanooga I stowed my luggage in the van, then proceeded to drive 210 miles.  At which point I was nearly catatonic from lack of good sleep, so I stopped to camp for the night on a ridgetop in a Tennessee state park.  I lay down in my tent at 6:30 pm and proceeded to sleep 11.5 hours.  So I caught up enough to drive today’s 600 miles to my next show in New Jersey.

One problem with a beautiful day and 600 miles to go is that there is really no time to take pictures, except in my mind.  My favorite mind picture today was of an abandoned two-story farmhouse in the Virginia hills surrounded by a green meadow and hedgerows of blossoming Dogwood trees.  The paint on the house was all gone, leaving a weathered gray with black window openings and a rusting metal hip roof.  Simply a beautiful slice of Americana that contrasts sharply with the roadside chain fast-food places and truck stops with acres of asphalt.  

Driving up past Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, past Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters, past the Antietam battlefield of the Civil War, past Washington’s Revolutionary war headquarters, past Virginia Tech where so many young people were randomly slaughtered in 2007, past Harper’s Ferry where John Brown and his band of abolitionists captured a U.S. armory in 1859, past the Gettysburg battlefield.  The latter battlefield name has resonance in American history for Lincoln’s heartfelt address to the nation and as sacred ground, where the men of blue and gray fought so valiantly for the future.  

Gettysburg was later home to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, father of the National Defense Highway System, which was created by an act of Congress in 1956.  The National Defense Highways—now known as Interstate Highways—were created largely because General Eisenhower observed the efficiency of the German Autobahn during World War II, a system that enabled Germany to move tanks, soldiers, and supplies efficiently in wartime.  He envisioned a similar but necessarily vaster system for America, and the original 1956 plan called for 41,000 miles of interstate highways (we now have slightly more than that).  These highways would have limited access and acceleration lanes to make them faster for travelers.  Several defense considerations were important for design of the highways.  One mile in five (wherever possible) was to be straight so that it could be used as an airstrip in the event of a war or other national emergency.  These roads were to be the mass evacuation corridors from major cities in the event of a nuclear war (remember, war with the Soviets was considered possible—if not probable—in that Cold War era), so the design for speed was of critical importance.  I understand also that the design of separated roadways with a median was so that if the road was bombed with conventional weapons, at least one of the two corridors was likely to survive the bombing.  Similarly, large bridges combining all the lanes would have been more cost-efficient than the parallel bridges (for, say, the eastbound and westbound lanes), but would be less likely to survive an air attack.  Fascinating history; here is a place to start reading about it:  http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/ndhs.htm  

The Interstates dramatically changed life in America.  The interchanges proved to be great places for gas stations and fast food to serve the ever-increasing traffic.  Huge illuminated billboards cropped up to tell us of casinos and motels and attractions ahead.  Big box stores settled in along interstate corridors, using the benefits of proximity.  Downtown businesses struggled or died.  Blue highways became local instead of national routes and homespun roadside attractions became dinosaurs.  Route 66 became mostly a nostalgic memory of an earlier time.

The interstates allow me to travel rapidly from art show to art show (and indeed enabled the whole outdoor art show phenomenon), so I’m going to pause a moment and thank President Eisenhower for his vision in creating this national highway resource that has, in his words, “changed the face of America.”

At last I have arrived in New Jersey after traveling through six states today.

Explore posts in the same categories: architecture, history, photo, photography, politics, tourism, transportation, travel, war

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