Thursday, October 4, 2012

On the road to nowhere

"What do you want for your birthday?"
Ever since I finally laid my hands on the mandolin I requested a couple of Fathers' Days ago, I've been drawing an even greater blank than ever when it comes to thinking of things I might actually wish to receive for various gift-giving occasions. I know I'm not getting the pony I asked for when I was eight, and beyond that, I'm generally hard pressed to think of things to add to my wish list.
But I knew I had to answer.
"Maps," I muttered.
"Maps? You've got plenty of maps, don't  you?" she replied, no doubt thinking of the stuffed-to-bursting canvas bag filled with atlases, gazetteers, tourist maps, state highway maps and Googlemap printouts that I insist on packing in the back of our car everywhere we go, even if it's just to the grocery store or to the bakery in Bishop Hill.
"More maps," I said. "Gotta have maps."
And I meant it.
Because just as my mother used to sit and read cookbooks in order, I think, to anticipate and imagine interesting new dishes and fun family meals, I love looking at maps just to imagine all the places I'd like to go...and the interesting ways I'd like to get there. While mom pictured perfect pie crusts, terrific turkeys and magnificent meatloaves, I dream of roads and routes and diverse destinations.
Some of them will probably never get beyond that dreamy state.
For instance, as much as I love reading, thinking and talking about it, I know I'll never walk the entire 2,184-mile length of the Appalachian Trail that extends from Georgia to Maine, though I'll continue to sample bits and pieces of that amazing wilderness path whenever I can. Likewise, El Camino de Santiago, the "Way of St. James" pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, is probably further than my rickety knees will ever take me, as is one of my all-time favorites, RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register's iconic noncompetitive bicycle race across Iowa, that takes place every year along a variety of interesting trans-state routes.
But there are still plenty of roads to travel and places to go.
My midwest friends and neighbors might just think of U.S. Routes 34 and 6 as old-time two-lane byways that pass through and around our local burgs. But I am absolutely transfixed by the fact that the former starts as Ogden Avenue in Chicago, then inches its way through hometowns in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska before finally taking flight to become Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest paved through highway in the United States. Route 6, on the other hand, is stunning due to its sheer length, stretching over 3,200 miles from Bishop, California to the very tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, making it the longest continuous highway in America.  My brother and I wax poetic over U.S. Route 41, which connects balmy Miami with a woodsy endpoint near Copper Harbor in the northernmost part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, thinking that a man with a slow vehicle, a sturdy tent and a certain well-defined lack of ambition could gently follow the seasons up and down its 2,000-mile course, resulting in a lifestyle lived in eternally temperate weather conditions.  Our travels to and through the southeastern United States have taken us to remote sea islands, tree-canopied Southern cities, low country landings and well-aged antebellum byways, but it it took a recent unplanned detour off one of our favorite Illinois-to-Carolina routes to introduce us to a small section of a well-known road that truly appeals to my wandering ways, my interest in history and my admiration for both good works and social activisim.
While the Blue Ridge Parkway is now one of our country's best-known, most-traveled scenic byways, it was actually begun for a much more pragmatic purpose--as a depression-era effort to provide jobs in the severely depressed Appalachian Mountain regions of North Carolina and Virginia. While much of the construction was done by private contractors, a variety of President Roosevelt's New Deal public works programs played important roles, as well. Some roadway construction was carried out by the Works Progress Administration. The purpose of the WPA was to put as many men to work as possible, so hand labor was used extensively, even when power equipment might have been more efficient. WPA crews cleared brush, drilled rock for blasting, and performed other manual labor. Pay was just $55 a week in the beginning, but the income was vitally important for many mountain families.  Possibly the best-known public works program was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which also had a camp in Galva. Four camps were established on the Parkway, with crews of young men working at roadside cleanup, planting, grading slopes for scenic effect, and improving roadside fields and forests. Carving the road along mountain ridges. over valleys and around peaks was no simple task, nor was it always easy to find the funding needed to complete the entire 469-mile highway. As a result, while construction started on the road in 1935, it took another 52 years before the final curving stretch was completed at the breathtaking, gravity-defying Linn Cove Viaduct.
The parkway even has an interesting backstory that indicates that President Roosevelt agreed to relocate the path of the road to meet the needs of a certain North Carolina congressman in exchange for some all-important support for a revolutionary concept Roosevelt was pushing at the time--called Social Security.
But the thing I like the most about this special road is the fact that--in the eyes of some, at least--it really goes nowhere important at all.
In fact, it simply connects two pretty spots--the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park.
But it served--and continues to serve--a much greater set of purposes: To provide jobs and a sense of self-worth in the darkest days of the great depression; and to share and celebrate the sometimes hidden beauty of this great country of ours.
And in my mind, that's really getting somewhere.

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