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Friday, February 16, 2007

AMERICAN ROAD: Two-lane Blacktop

The great American interstate highway system is anathema to the editors of American Road, a quarterly that's dedicated to "celebrating the two-lane highways of yesteryear. . .and the joys of driving them today." It's published in Mt. Clemons, Michigan by the Mock Turtle Press.

American Road is geared to the recreational vehicle driver, motorcyclist and automotive tourist with the time to travel the byways instead of the highways, and, of course, to the armchair tourist. Its holy grails often have numbers: Route 66, Route 1, Route 101, plus the Lincoln Highway, America's first great cross-country road.

A typical story from the Winter 2006 issue is about the "Bigfoot Scenic Byway," a stretch of Route 96 in northern California near the Oregon border that stretches from Happy Camp to Willow Creek. One of my peeves about the magazine is that while it often shows some sort of map of the area in question, I still have no idea where that area is, and am forced to get out my tattered Rand-McNally road atlas to place a burg like "Happy Camp" relative to entities I can readily identify, like Los Angeles or the Pacific Ocean. A small state outline with a shaded area showing the spot under discussion would be appreciated.

Back to Bigfoot. This 89-mile ribbon of highway is hard by the Siskiyou Mountains, the Klamath Mountains and the Klamath River, and is the area where many of the "sightings" of Bigfoot and castings of his pawprints have originated. The scenery is fantastic, and so is the devotion of local shopowners to the legend, since it brings in the tourists.

The next story is about Route 6, the poor cousin to Route 66. Route 6, known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, stretched from Cape Cod to California in the old days, passing through 14 states on its way. Back in the 1960s California did the unforgivable: it lopped off 300 miles of the road, giving it other names and numbers.

Writer Joe Hurley recounts efforts by a few diehards to get the state to at least place historic markers along the old route, and describes some of its attractions today, such as the Owens Valley, the Mojave Desert and the 200 jetliners in storage at the Mojave Airport. He writes of the many Western films shot in the surrounding countryside. The old route continues through Burbank and Los Angeles into Long Beach.

Roadside diners were an important part of the pre-Interstate American road system, at least in the East, and they're important to American Road as well. The issue contains a diner-by-diner count of the cross-country Lincoln Highway today, although a number of them are closed, in decay or have been turned into barbecue joints. There are great stretches without a diner at all, such as from mid-Indiana through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, all the way to Wyoming. Clearly a diner freak, author Brian Butko identifies each diner by factory and year of manufacture.

Living in New Jersey, I especially enjoyed Peter Genovese's account of his record-setting 50-revolution drive around one of the state's infamous traffic circles. He reports it took 23 minutes, covered 12 miles, and involved only a few near-accidents. I was reminded of a visit I made to Ireland a few years ago, renting a car with the steering wheel on the right and driving (white-knuckled) on the left side of the road. All went surprisingly well until I encountered a "roundabout."

An annual subscription (four issues) to American Road is $16.95 from the publisher. We'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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