Friday, February 1, 2013

The roads not taken

If you are, like me, a map lover, the idea of depending solely on a fancy cell phone or dash-mounted device to get from Point A to Point B is less than inspiring. The difference between me and those gadget-loving geeks was neatly illustrated several months ago when, while we were in residence at our part-time North Carolina digs, I ran into a young couple who had just arrived from the midwest for a visit.
"How'd you get here?" I asked him, thinking we might settle into a long, intensely interesting (to me) conversation about the pros and cons of the various routes and mountain crossings involved in the trip from Illinois to the Old North State.
"Gee, I don't know," he replied. "I just turned when the GPS told me to."
I was almost as horrified as if he had said he had been speeding along those those rolling plains and breathtaking mountain passes with a fast-food carryout bag pulled over his head.
I mean, where's your sense of adventure? Where's your sense of curiosity?
Where's your sense?
As far as I can see, putting oneself entirely at the mercy of a soulless system that's an electro-glitch away from cyber-oblivion is pretty much tantamount to walking the Mohave Desert barefoot or creeping through the Great Dismal Swamp overnight without benefit of headlights.
Risky business, indeed. And not much fun, either.
But, O.K., kids, the rant is over.
Fact is, I, too, kind of take advantage of technology when planning a trip, whether it's a cross-country cruise or a quick daytrip to somewhere nearby. Because like many, I often use Google maps to figure out my potential routes. Now, online mapping and directional help is nothing new, and no big deal, I know. But there's a subtle little feature on the Google version, neatly buried under the "show options" tab that I really like.
It's called "avoid highways."
Click on that little sucker, and a dull, interstate-driven disaster can be magically transformed into a quaint, educational ramble through the cities, towns and villages that used to be mainstays of the major two-lane routes that crisscrossed our region, state and country. Ergo, the "avoid highways" route from Galesburg to, say, Denver returns to those engaging days of yesteryear, whereby the intrepid traveler got to enjoy the sights, sounds and flavors of great places like Bloomfield, Iowa; Maryville, Missouri; Beatrice, Nebraska and Strasburg, Colorado. Now, I realize that a chance for a milkshake in Maryville or a burger in Beatrice is not necessarily everyone's dream come true, but you've got to admit, there's something to be said for an alternative to the lengthy gauntlet of bad food, dull landscapes and dangerous traffic that is Interstate 80. And while the total estimated travel time is a scant three hours more over the entire journey, the actual mileage from Mother Burg to the Mile-High City is less, with the added advantage of an opportunity to actually see something besides billboards, stale donuts and the hard-charging vehicle in your rear view mirror.  Even shorter jaunts, like the trip to Chicago, can be perked up by following one of the several historic routes to the Windy City that still exist from back in the days when Dan Ryan was just the name of a Chicago politician.  Take highway 34, the iconic roadway that is now also known as the Walter Payton Memorial Highway, and was once part of the historic Cannonball Trail and the so-called "hard road" as it passed through my Galva hometown back before the days of the interstate highways. Today, it's mostly an easygoing country drive as it takes you through a neat variety of small towns and cities as it roughly follows the route of the old CB&Q railway that was the real reason that many of those towns came to be in the first place. And while traffic can still get a little crazy once you hit the western suburbs, Ogden Avenue can provide an interesting look at some of Chicago's old neighborhoods and architecture as you pass through on your way to downtown. It's not always the fastest way to get there, I admit, but if you've ever bumped your way through the myriad of always-under-construction chunks of I-80 between here and there, or battled the Chicago freeway system at rush hour, it's not a bad way to go.
And that's the thing about backroads travel. Those original U.S. Highways, state routes and blacktop byways might not always seem to fit our universal need for speed. But they are the one true way to see a little bit of the America we all seem to be missing nowadays. And that's worth the trip.
You just gotta go look.

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