On the Road
Don’t let them fool you. All roads do not lead to Rome – at least, not anymore. But: there is always a close connection between any road and whatever travels on it. Most of our roads today began as animal tracks. Animals didn’t need motels, or scenic views. They bought no souvenirs, and never wrote home. And the routes they followed were not necessarily direct. So, people straightened them, smoothed them, and eventually sprinkled them with all manner of “facilities.”
There had of course been railroads long before the first automobiles appeared in 1895. So the most important roads became those which led to and from the railroad stations. But then came a new factor – the bicycle. These “easy and graceful machines,” as they were described at the time, could theoretically go anywhere. But they had one great limitation. They needed a fairly smooth surface to ride on. It was, therefore, organized bicyclists, not motorists, who spearheaded the first widespread agitation for “Good Roads.”
But the better the roads became, the more problems they helped to spread, especially when the Mass Automobile came along. A good example was a certain weed, known to botanists as Tribulus Terrestris, but which became unpleasantly familiar to motorists, especially in California, the most motorized State, as the “Puncture Vine.” The spiked seed pods of this plant were found to be a great menace to automobile tires.
The irony was that this plant had not been at all common in California until cars began to proliferate. Then it was found to be spreading rapidly all over the state. The reason was, of course, that the cars themselves were spreading the pest, transporting its seeds on their tires from one area to another. No really satisfactory answer to this problem was ever found, until tires became less vulnerable.
Many of the earlier roads were made for military purposes – but all people who used them were of course benefited. In my own days of youthful travel, much of which was by hitch-hiking, one of my trips took me into the Highlands of Scotland where, in the troubled times of the 18th Century, a British Field Marshall named George Wade had been responsible for supervising the construction of roads penetrating some of the most rebellious regions. Upon one such thoroughfare, some grateful user placed this inscription to be seen by travelers:
Had you seen this road before it was made,
You would lift up your hands, and bless General Wade.
There must be something emotionally appealing about the metaphorical concept of a road, considering how often it appears in our songs and stories. A classic example is the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” Many people aren’t aware that it’s based on a legend that, for Scots who die abroad, there is an underground pathway (“the Low Road”) by which their spirits return home. The song supposedly expresses the feelings of a Scottish leader who had been captured by the English, and was to be executed in London, to a friend who was free and would be taking “the High Road” back to Scotland. When you know this story, it gives added poignancy to the words “but I’ll be in Scotland before ye’.”
On a much lighter note, there was a series of seven “Road” movies featuring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The destinations included Singapore, Zanzibar, and Morocco. One gag in one song from the latter film is the only line I can remember from any of them. It said, “Like Webster’s Dictionary, we’re Morocco bound.”
Some routes endeared themselves to the public under particular names. Best-known in California since early Spanish days was the official “Royal Highway,” connecting all the Missions. To this day, parts of that route are still called by the original name, “El Camino Real.”
When motoring became popular, a route was established in 1913 which went entirely across the U.S., from coast to coast. It was known affectionately as the Lincoln Highway – but that designation was eventually converted into various humdrum numbers.
At least one of those numbered routes, however, acquired a cachet of its own. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles (and which, when 17, I hitch-hiked along in 1951), became famous as the road followed by “Dust Bowl” refugees, celebrated in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Eventually it was bypassed by the Interstate Highway System – but certain forsaken portions still lure tourists who want to say they “got their kicks on Route 66.”