Every time I have to make the long trek from my current Bucolic Rural Hamlet to my childhood home in the Great Suburban Necropolis that surrounds Chicago, I find myself on a curious journey, constantly tempted to turn aside, lured by the promise of back road mysteries and blacktop secrets just off the trail.
I long ago decided that I wouldn’t take the major highways if I could help it — there’s nothing more boring, really, than a massive freeway in the rural midwest. I confine myself to the old state highways and back roads. At first, I chose to do this because it seemed to me to be the only way to keep myself awake for the 7+ hours of driving that the trip requires; there’s nothing like the need to pay very close attention to where you’re going to keep you awake, and the scenery’s generally more interesting anyway. It makes driving a kind of worthwhile work — I have to change speed, change direction, study the terrain and the route, all that good stuff. It’s kind of fun, actually. It feels a bit more like an adventure than the mind-numbing sameness of clean, easy freeway driving. There’s also less traffic, most of the time, because these back ways don’t linger in the big cities. They still belong to the small towns and the farms, and there’s a kind of charm to such places that a freeway could only ruin or obscure.
Still, I came to find another set of reasons to enjoy the adventure of my long, long drive back home: the hidden world of the old highways.
In those towns, from the big river town of Clinton, IA to smaller burgs with names no one would ever know who’d never lived there, there are stories waiting. Every mile of my drive is pregnant with narrative possibility, suggested by this sign or that turnoff, this factory or that bridge. Each of the places the road passes through is mother to a tale or two, and every time I drive through them, I find myself wanting to find the tale and hear it told. Sometimes, I just imagine it; I’m struck by an old sign’s worn lettering, or caught by the curious name of a town that thrived once but has now become no more than a grain elevator’s address. Still, each of these places has stories to tell, and I can feel them, on such a drive.
I know, for example, that the hotel to which this sign points really isn’t much of a big deal. It has a few reviews online. It’s a small motel, the kind of place both truckers and travelers looking for an affordable lodging to visit relatives in the nearby town might stay for a bit. It’s been around a while, but it’s by no means as old as the road itself. By all reports (and how little those few small reviews can tell…) it’s clean and convenient and rather charming, a mom-and-pop operation of 9 rooms and a cottage. The sign, though, haunts me. It stands there along the road, assuming and implying so many possibilities about those who might follow it. It remembers a different time. It still lives in that time, I suspect, as does the Pine Motel and the very road itself. There are stories there, and I want to leave my journey to go find out.
There’s never quite time, though, at least not when I usually travel (around the winter holidays, when driving conditions are rather poor). Perhaps, some summer, I’ll take that road trip I’ve always wanted to take, touring the secret places that didn’t used to be secret.
For now, I take pictures of what I find on the road, cataloging my temptations (and sometimes, my amusements). Even on the freeway (*shudder*) there are oddities to be found, rare and fascinating.