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Big highways blah? Don't dis them. Why and when to travel interstates — happily

Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

When we think about road trips -- and, now that schools are out or almost so, we may be -- we rarely think about the road itself, especially the big, rumbling, boring interstates that lace together our country.

Why should we? They're the method, not the merriment.

But consider this: More than half of traveling families will vacation by car this year, AAA reported, as they explore America. We have to thank President Dwight D. Eisenhower (with a tip of the hat to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) for this amazing grid of roadways.

The need for a network of roads became clear as the number of privately owned automobiles grew from 20 million in 1927 to 54 million in 1956, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

With other things occupying the national agenda -- economic recovery and World War II not the least among them -- the initiative did not get off the ground until 1956 with the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, the largest public works project in U.S. history and, some would say, in the world.

We tend to take for granted now this system of interstates that crisscrosses our country and makes the movement of goods and people possible. Or we think of them as necessary nuisances, traffic-clogged and always under construction.

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We often modify their names with unkind or, in a family newspaper, unspeakable words as we grind through the backups that separate us from home or work.

Helen Miller's reaction to this system was quite different. She was a teenager in the 1960s but didn't yet have a driver's license when a stretch of the system opened near her home in Brookville, Ohio.

Her friend Marie Mohler took the wheel, and the two hopped in what Miller called a "big old boat of a car" and drove about 20 miles across the state line.

For Miller, now 70, it was a thrill that no theme-park ride could equal, she said as we chatted one recent Sunday morning in Abilene, Kan., where Eisenhower spent part of his growing-up years. She opened my eyes anew to the awe of the accomplishment and the possibilities this grid created.


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