September 12, 2016 – Sunny, 75 degrees
Miles Today: 70
Miles to Date: 16,123
States to Date: 44
Missouri’s bicycle claim to fame is the KATY Trail – 237 miles from Machens to Clinton, mostly along the Missouri River. But it’s gravel, and I dislike the dust that creates. It’s removed from towns and cities, which I seek out. So, despite Google Map’s consistent attempts to route me on the KATY Trial, I stay on paved roads. Today, instead of paralleling the Missouri River, I paralleled Interstate 70. It may not have been as pretty, but it was a more representative view of our country in this century than following the river Lewis and Clark mapped two centuries ago.
I was not just pedaling west, I was pedaling into the West, following in the shadow of the fur traders, the trappers, the Conestoga pioneers, the renegade Confederates, the railroad builders, the homesteaders, the Depression farmers, and the beatniks; generations of people who pushed this direction for fortune or security or plain old fun. As thousands and thousands of people whizzed by me in air-conditioned comfort I thought about how hard this journey had been for those who came before; how easy it is today.
The Interstate highway system is our nation’s second most auspicious feat, superseded only by depositing a man on the moon. It changed our conception of space and time: Americans live at a mile a minute. It changed our geography from discrete cities and towns whose streets ended in countryside to continuous strings of pavement that sprout houses and stores and industrial nodes all along their path. I passed more construction along the I-70 corridor fifty miles from downtown Saint Louis than I did in the city core. Eventually, the path from Saint Louis to Kansas City will be a linear city in its own right.
One ironic thing about the Interstate highways is that, in their determination to make us go fast and safe, they blur distinctions. We build up the low lands and hollow out the hills to make smooth grades. We bring universal commerce to the on-ramps, which undermine local purveyors. In making it so easy to cross our land, we’ve made it virtually impossible to identify where we are. Our landmarks are not ravines and cliffs; they’re exit signs and golden arches.
Another irony is that, in making it so easy to go west, we’ve commoditized the adventure. Sure, it’s fun to drive coast to coast. But it’s not an achievement, its not difficult in any way. Since anyone can do it, there’s nothing remarkable in the feat.
The Interstates are just another example of how our culture, in its rush to make life easy, has smoothed our experiences and made them less distinct. Our physical lives are so comfortable, yet our mental and spiritual lives are not comparably satisfied. As someone I talked with recently said, “We are fat cats, starving.”