Ruminations on a Road Trip

by Phil Anderson

 

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness …'' Mark Twain  

We recently took a trip to Denver and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. We drove across “flyover” country. Driving lets you see the country up close even when going farther in 10 minutes than the pioneers accomplished in a day. This road trip spawned some observations of our society.  

One of the first things you notice driving anywhere in our country is the bland uniformity of the  

American commercial culture. Long gone are the days of traversing a variety of regional and ethnic diversity. Everywhere is the drab conformity of big boxes, chains, and beige ticky-tacky housing. Except for nature's geographic features it is hard to tell where you are in the country. Variety is the spice of life but we have a very bland menu.  

“It is one of the abiding ironies of an unregulated commercial sector that it produces a uniformity almost as drab, tedious and limited as the state control of communism.” Matthew Fort in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons  

Another uniformity is the abysmal traffic conditions. We came into Denver on I-25 at noon on a Friday and immediately came to a screeching halt. For miles four lanes of traffic in both direction were barely moving. Every major city in our country is choked with cars. Rush hour isn't the workday morning or evening commute. It is 24/7. Most of the cars have only one person. These cities have become unlivable because of the automobile.  

People have to put up with this mess every day! How can they stand it? Cities are suppose to be places where everything is convenient. People have all the wonderful amenities of urban living – the shopping, restaurants, concerts, sports teams, universities, and good jobs. But how can you enjoy city life when you have to spend hours getting anywhere?  

Why don't they move somewhere more livable? Why don't they advocate for better transportation options? Americans are defined by their cars. For half a century the automobile has been the embodiment of our “freedom” and “individualism.” We will only give them up when the oil is gone and you pry them from our cold, dead hands. Having to live in self-created hell holes, enslaved to the daily commute, it is just another cost of “freedom.”  

Some people do try to flee the insanity. Denver, like all our cities, is sprawling into the exurbs. This only adds to the problems and increases the commute times. In Denver much of this sprawl is into the foothills and mountains. The country roads into the canyons and creek bottoms are filling up with houses. Many are on steep sides of mountains. One wonders, in a landscape of solid rock obviously unsuitable for houses, how people drill wells or deal with sewage. It must be hugely expensive. One wonders how long it will be before the flash flood or forest fire wipes out these houses. One wonders why they are allowed to build there at all! But hey, rational behavior is not what we do as a people.  

We could structure our urban landscapes to be more livable. We could improve the economic opportunities in rural areas and smaller towns to attract and retain people. We have the knowledge, resources, and computer technology to make more vibrant, healthy, pleasant place to live. But we choose to do other things with our money.   Road construction is, of course, everywhere. This is good given the sorry condition of much of our public infrastructure. Sensible management would require continuous repair of roads and bridges. But one wonders what is going on with all the traffic control barrels. Numerous times we encountered miles of barrels creating lane restrictions with no construction happening or appearing imminent. The barrel leasing companies seem to have a very sweet deal going for themselves. I'm going to invest in the barrel people. I can't lose!  

Then there was the water hazards we had to “play through.” The plains states have been having record rain and I-90 in South Dakota and U.S. 83 in Nebraska were flooded in several places. Contrary to the usual warnings, traffic was being directed through the high water. In SD the alternative detours were also flooded. In western NE there was no alternative. U.S. 83 is the only north-south road for many miles. In over 50 years of driving I have never seen a situation like U.S. 83. For hundreds of yards mile we had to drive through close to a foot of water! According to locals, this had been the situation all summer!  

What does this tell us about our public infrastructure, climate change, and political leadership? Is our road engineering too poor to handle unusual rains? Interstate highways cost up to $10 million per mile. Didn't they get a decent hydrological survey? Or is climate change causing more volatile, unpredictable weather?   In western Nebraska U.S. 83 goes through of the Sand Hills. This is empty ranching country but there is interstate commercial truck traffic using this road.

It is a federal highway! One wonders if the politicians in Lincoln just don't care (like politicians in St Paul or Madison ignoring the north woods) or if they just lack creative problem solving skills. For example, I know from my military experience that the National Guard has a number of temporary bridging options sitting around stockpiled for future use. In a week the problem could have been solved at virtually no cost to taxpayers while providing some real world training for the troops. This would be a win-win for everyone by using the extravagant waste of our “military preparedness.”  

On a more positive note wind generators are increasing in numbers. Every time we travel we see more windmills. Despite opposition from oil companies, conservative politicians, and other knuckle draggers, the Green New Deal makes good business sense. Power companies are moving ahead with wind and solar energy farms. One wonders why this win-win solution is not sweeping the country.   When we travel west we take in the crown jewels of America – our wonderful National Parks. State parks are also great places to visit and we hiked in several in Colorado. These public treasures reflect America at its best. They prove that we could also do better at creating beautiful, livable communities.  

This road trip was an adventure. We had a great time and hiked to13,100 feet proving we can still hang with the young dogs. We may be long in the tooth and moving more slowly, but we're still keeping ahead of the rust.