When I sit in a gnarl of cars and trucks on I-75, my mind sometimes wanders to early days of travel.
After the glaciers melted at the end of the Ice Age, people started settling down, living by rivers. They invented the birchbark canoe, and the main roads were rivers. The Paleo-Indians made footpaths through thickets, and later there were horse-and-wagon trails.
A stretch of the Federal Road was a built in 1803 to provide a shorter route from Washington City to New Orleans. A steady stream of pioneers moved westward along that road.
Two years later, the Creek Indians gave permission for the development of a “horse path” through their nation for more efficient mail delivery. This section extended the Federal Road through Creek territory. It entered Alabama at Fort Mitchell near Columbus, Ga., spanning from Mt. Meigs to Pintlala, and on to Mobile.
But roads as we think of them today began with the invention of the automobile. At first, cars used the same paths that were meant for buggies, and that made for rough traveling.
Novels set in the early 1900s paint pictures of driving on those roads. Will Tweedy, the narrator in Olive Ann Burns’ “Cold Sassy Tree” says, “The single-track dirt road had deep wagon ruts, and it like to jolted us to pieces. The rebound just about tossed Granpa and Miss Love out of the car.”
Because the roads were so primitive, and there was no help along the way, drivers stuffed all kinds of paraphernalia on the floorboards. The narrator in William Faulkner’s “The Reivers” described the emergency gear his grandfather installed in his car: “the smell-tight five-gallon gasoline can, the funnel and chamois strainer in the toolbox with the tire tools and jack and wrenches that came with the car, and the lantern and axe and shovel and coil of barbed wire and the block and tackle which Grandfather had added, along with the tin bucket to fill the radiator when we passed creeks.”
When it became clear cars were here to stay, new highways paved with blacktop replaced rugged auto trails. That was the beginning of American’s adoration of the open road. Folks took to the roadways in cars, trucks, trailers, motorcycles, and busses.
Civil engineers designed and built U.S. highways. Route 66, called the “Main Street of America,” ran from Chicago to LA, and U.S. Highway 1 meandered up the East Coast from Key West, Fla., to the tip of Maine. State and county highways branched out like arteries in all directions. Full-service gas stations, motels, and restaurants sprang up.
The first interstate highway was constructed in 1957. Then they built more with bridges and tunnels and complex interchanges.
Whenever I’m stuck in traffic, making my way through Atlanta, I think about my Aunt Mary driving alone in her 1939 Ford from Miami to Eufaula and back every year on narrow, rustic roads. And I figure, for me to get to where I’m going is downright easy.
Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.