If you’ve paid any attention at all to my written ramblings about our on-the-road treks, you know that, to me, interstate highways are something to be avoided unless you are in one heck of a big hurry to get somewhere important or, perhaps, in the event of a national emergency, like the kind President Dwight D. Eisenhower had in mind when he pushed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 into existence. Eisenhower was impressed by the German Autobahn while he was serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II and felt that a national highway system of our own would improve private and commercial transportation, plus provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troops in case of an emergency or foreign invasion.
And it’s true that we receive many important goods and services more quickly and easily because of interstate truck carriers, and it’s also true that if a foreign power was to invade, say, Iowa City, we could have troops there in a jiffy.
But while there are some advantages to a coast-to-coast, multi-lane highway system, there are things that I--and others--find less than attractive.
"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place." - Charles Kuralt,
Our recent trip to visit son Colin and his family in northwestern Minnesota included a hurry-up drive via a trio of I-highways to get there, so I was pretty burnt out on four-lanes and truck stops when it came time to come home. A quick Google search revealed an alternate route that actually reduced the mileage, while adding little time to the drive. U.S. Route 52 starts at the Canadian border between Saskatchewan and North Dakota, then enters Minnesota as part of I-94 before meandering off on its own course in St. Paul. Some later research showed that the highway travels through ten different states, including North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Like many other old US highways, 52 travels through a myriad of interesting towns and areas that were once important byways, but now find themselves a little lost in the high-speed shuffle. The route I had chosen would work its way through Rochester and head south, cross into Iowa near Decorah, then wander southeast, following the Mississippi to its crossing into Illinois at Savanah and its nearby intersection with route 78 towards home. I figured we’d get a look at a few small towns, plus enjoy the scenery provided by the rolling hills and neat-as-a-pin dairy farms of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, not to mention a late-day glimpse of the mighty Mississippi in Dubuque and Bellevue.
We did. And more. And that’s where the diversity part comes in.
It was near a little Minnesota town called Harmony that we encountered something unexpected.
“I think we’re in Amish country,” said my co-pilot, who had noticed tidy farmhouses with working windmills and a lack of electric lines as her first clue. As it turns out, Harmony is the center of a large Old Order Amish area, started in the 70’s when a group relocated from Ohio. We’ve traveled through Amish locales before, but the Harmony group seems exceedingly successful, with mile after mile of small, prosperous-looking farms, with wagons working in the fields and buggies traveling along the well-paved shoulders of route 52.
“I guess they’re doing pretty well without offshore oil drilling,” she said.
And they are, or so it seems.
We crossed into Iowa and thought we were pretty well done with surprising sights when my ever-observant spouse turned to me as we drove through yet another small town.
“Was that guy mowing his lawn wearing a yarmulke?”
Postville, Iowa (population 1,478), seems an unlikely place to find a sizable Jewish population, let alone an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Lubavitcher community. It is, after all, in pork country, and the Lubavitchers hail from Brooklyn. But when one of them bought a failed meat packing plant and turned it into a kosher processing center, things changed fast. By the late 1980s, sources said that "Postville had more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States, perhaps the world."
Since then, Postville has become a virtual poster child for rapid-fire diversity, with a population that includes the original Iowa townspeople, members of the Lubavitcher group and a sizable group of Spanish-speaking immigrants who work in the plant. It’s been quite a struggle over the years, with a story that’s included cultural clashes, government INS raids, bankruptcy and recovery. It’s a story that’s been recorded at length in books, the media and court documents. But it’s there, in Postville, Iowa, where the sight of men wearing beards, black suits and payos while discussing the Torah is as common as bib-overalled farmers talking about the price of corn.
“Wow, things have been a little diverse today, haven’t they?” she smiled.
And that’s the whole point of this backroads thing of mine. Because there’s a entire country full of lives and stories and differences out there. We just need to take the time to look, listen and remember where they are.
"Life doesn't happen along the interstates. It's against the law."
-- William Least Heat Moon, author of Blue Highways