Sunday, August 1, 2010

A river runs through it

I grew up next to a river of sorts, though the only actual waterway in my childhood neighborhood was a trickling stream we called Chemical Creek. We named it that because of the special qualities it picked up as it burbled through the property shared by the Galva Foundry and the Lily Tulip Cup factory before flowing through the vacant lot at the end of our street. Chemical Creek never froze, no matter how cold it got. It smelled kind of funny, supported no aquatic life, and made your feet tingle if you waded in it for more than a few seconds. We were forbidden to play in the creek, and sometimes we didn't.
The thing that really seemed like a river to me wasn’t a river at all. It was, in fact, a highway made of roughly equal parts of concrete, asphalt, sweat and memories.
Route 34--also known as "the hard road" for its paved surface--was a part of what was once called The Cannonball Trail that ran through our part of Illinois. It now starts as Ogden Avenue in Chicago and goes all the way to Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, where it climbs to 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved through highway in the United States. For much of its length, it roughly follows the path of what was called the Central Military Tract Railroad, now the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Line, which is part of the system of tracks and trains that run from Chicago to the west coast. Most of the towns along the way--including Kewanee and Galva--sprung up because of that proximity to the railroad.
In the pre-interstate highway days of my childhood, Route 34 saw heavy car and truck traffic day and night. It was an important part of my young life because it represented a border, like a river, that I was absolutely forbidden to cross without express permission and some sort of parent/older sibling supervision. It was a great place to watch for out-of-state license plates and wave at truck drivers who might be convinced to honk their wonderful air horns at me.
The corner of our street and the highway was, for me, the great jumping-off point to the rest of the world.
I still feel that way, despite the fact that old 34 is now pretty much just the choice of locals traveling between towns, and those few travelers who prefer to see something more than mile markers, fast food joints and all-night gas stations the size of small, suburban cities.
We still travel the east end of the old route into Chicago once in awhile, with every trip reminding me of the cautious forays my family used to make to exotic locations like the Prudential Building and Brookfield Zoo. And while traffic might get a little slow through parts of the city, it’s still the most direct route from here to there, if not always the fastest. We’ve worked our way along some of the western parts while traveling in Iowa and Colorado, too.
But we’ve never driven the whole thing from end to end.
I think about it sometimes.
I think about spending a few weeks poking along the full length of highway 34, with stops in both urban neighborhoods and small country towns.
I’d like to take the time to explore the diverse neighborhoods along Ogden Avenue and Chicago’s west side. And I want to visit towns like Wray, Colorado; Max, Nebraska and Red Oak, Iowa just to see what happened to them after the main highway went somewhere else.
I don’t know why that road reminded me so much of a river back then. And I don’t exactly know why it continues to call to me yet today.
Maybe someday, I’ll find out.

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