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A Tale of Two Highways

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One week, two major roadway systems, bear paws on my car, a cabin in the woods, I saw stars and flickering fireflies, surrounded by long-legged spiders and green-leafed trees.

Over nine days, I traveled I-81 and I-26 from Staunton, Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina, then east on I-40 and north into the Blue Ridge Mountains. After a week in cool mountain air, I worked my way back, this time on the Blue Ridge Parkway for almost its entire length. I made a full loop, using roadways parallel to each other, yet I could have been in different universes.

Like on most major interstates, driving I-81 is an experience shaped by trucks. While car drivers may often be traveling to find family and friends or explore new lands, trucks move in regulated waves, forming a vital artery of our consumer economy. As sociologist Benjamin Snyder beautifully documented, they are governed by the metrics of clock and odometer, motivated by pick-up and delivery schedules, beholden to the unforgiving pressure of the time equals money equation, which has little regard for sleep schedules or bodily comforts.

If you're familiar with driving on highways through steep terrain you know that following long descents there are runaway truck ramps, graded gravel beds dug into the side of the mountain. The idea is that should the brake system fail, this is a chance to let friction and gravity halt the out-of-control careening of an eighty-thousand pound eighteen-wheeler. The thought amazes me. It captures pure grit. Truck drivers, as Snyder portrays them, are the unsung heroes of our industrial society. Like others who work in fields or factory lines, they sacrifice their bodies on a daily basis so the rest of us can find the supplies we need from our local drugstore, groceries at will, and all manner of household and personal items where and when we wish for them.

A few miles away from I-81, the Blue Ridge Parkway stands as a symbolic counterpoint. A two-lane road, the building of which was conceived in part as a countermeasure to the Depression era stall in the forward motions of industrial Capitalism, it purposefully edges the contours of the mountains, leaving a minimal trace. Mile after mile it opens up to the horizon, the view of trees all around and verdant valleys below. There is no advertising on the Parkway, no subtle suggestions that we may need a diamond ring or new iPhone to make us whole. There are no trucks, and hardly any commerce--just hundreds of Sunday drivers, meandering through the forest taking in the sights.

That driving the Blue Ridge Parkway was more fun and rewarding than I-81 is cliché. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out, yet I almost didn't do it. I assumed it might take too long, be too inefficient, not get me home on time. When I made the choice, I entered into a different realm of time, one that put me in a semi-suspended state, in the midst of nature, aware that I was taking the long way home. It also reminded me of how privileged I am to be able to step outside of work schedules and honor the impulses of curiosity and a craving to be in nature.

I-81 and the Blue Ridge Parkway represent two realities of the American experience. I-81 seeks to shorten distances, the Blue Ridge Parkway to extend them. I-81 was built to facilitate commerce, not wonder. I experienced a joint sense of respect, and a tinge of sadness driving I-81--respect for the grit and hardiness of the American economy and those who propel it forward, sadness because of what it will do, if left unchecked, to our environment. It reminded me of what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in the 19th century, in the full manifestation of the Industrial Revolution:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Both are necessary, yet surely we can hope that I-81 and the many roads like it will at some point evolve into something different. Perhaps it will be battery-powered driverless transporters. Perhaps our inter-state commerce system will come to rely on packages propelled by giant magnets in aesthetically pleasing cross-country pipelines. Perhaps, along the way to technological transformation, armed with greater consciousness, we will more consistently make the choice to consume less and more locally.

In the meantime, across the valley from I-81, the Blue Ridge Parkway stands as historical marker and iconic sign-post to the kinds of experience all of us treasure: slower, in tune with biological rhythms, devoted to creativity, deeply immersed in the natural world.