Anything but a Straight Line: Exploring America’s Backroads
Whoever said a straight line was the best way to get from point A to point B didn’t ride a motorcycle. Is there anyone among us who uses a highway rather than back roads as our primary source of motorcycle entertainment? Not many, I dare to suppose.
When President Eisenhower came up with the idea that the United States needed an interstate highway system, was there anyone on his team who insisted that a few bends in the road could be a good idea? If this conversation ever took place, can there be any doubt that the person was riding a motorcycle? The anonymous guy who liked the straight line from point A to point B seems to have had the last laugh.
Discover some of RiderThe favorite rides of
In the age of the advent of the motorcycle and automobile, the earth set the agenda for road building. Pick one of the older highways, and chances are it will go around a hill or parallel a river. Over time, with more powerful explosives and bigger and better earthmoving equipment, the ladders changed and it became easier to bend the good earth to the wishes of every highway engineer.
Over millennia, glaciers and the upheavals of the earth have created the glorious hills and majestic mountains that we all enjoy. Within decades the big Ukes (that’s what we used to call Euclid’s earthmoving machines when I was a kid) scraped tons of hills to fill deep valleys, creating what people knew we needed – a faster way to get from here to there. Ok, I admit that some of them worked.
When you go down a rung or two from the highways and highways to the more basic highways, you quickly find where they’ve been redone for an easier trip to get us home or to grandma’s church in the city neighbor. Filter even further to where the real old highways are, where there’s a rawer feel, more of the essence of the making of the old roads, a lot has an ebb and flow where what’s happening around the next bend is still a mystery to enjoy. This is where I aim my bike, where there is still the unknown, where these turns of the highway invite me again and again.
Of course, there are exceptions. Straight as an arrow, US Route 2 through the northern United States is an exceptional drive, so much so that I once saw it on a list of the top 10 highways. Even so, it was better 40 years ago when there were only two lanes. There are stretches of I-70 in Colorado and Utah where it’s a wonderful ride, a rarity when you consider how interstate highways are traditionally viewed.
Given the choice, we all know where to aim our motorcycles – somewhere in the spirit that William Least Heat-Moon wrote about in blue highways and Jack Kerouac in his epic On the roadwhere the roadway has a soul, a dynamism, a purpose beyond being just a way to get to a distant place.
The original state highway, US Route 40, called America’s Main Street, still sounds romantic, to me at least. This freeway is actually Main Street in my hometown of Zanesville, Ohio, home of the famous Y-Bridge (at least for those of us familiar with it), part of the mystique of this freeway.
Riding Ohio’s Triple Nickel: State Route 555
But that title – Main Street of America – is also claimed by US Route 66, the almost mythical highway known by other famous names, such as the Will Rogers Highway and the Mother Road. For those of a generation long ago, Route 66 represented a way to leave behind pain and despair, the highway itself a lifeline to a place where life would have a purpose. When it was created in 1926, it was called the Grand Diagonal, but that same year the United States implemented the federal highway numbering system that is still used today.
From this original numerical base, there have been other designations for our well-known and lesser-known highways. U.S. Route 6, which runs from Massachusetts to California, is called the Grand Army of the Republic Highway; part of US 20 through Nebraska is known as the Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway; US 12 through Montana is the Lewis and Clark Highway. The Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway is in Wyoming, the Schoodic National Scenic Byway is part of US 1 in Maine, and the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway is in New York State.
US Route 23 in Kentucky is called the Country Music Highway, claiming to be home to many country music icons including Loretta Lynn, The Judds, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dwight Yoakam and Tom T. Hall. A six-mile stretch of US 129 near Robbinsville, North Carolina is known for its favorite son – the Ronnie Milsap Highway.
The list is lengthened increasingly. As of this writing, there are 184 nationally designated scenic drives. If you travel almost anywhere, you’ll find our country’s history in the names given to our highways.
Then there are other freeways offering a different experience: the freeway itself. When the letters PCH appear, is there any doubt what they refer to? For those of us who travel on motorcycles, there are black magnets that draw us in. We are drawn to special places by what the sidewalk has come to represent. The Dragon’s Tail and the Cherohala Skyway, both winding through the Appalachians of North Carolina and Tennessee. The Million Dollar Highway in the Colorado Rockies. The Great River Road along the Mississippi River. The old Lincoln Highway, where some stretches can still be found. And for many, the Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge Parkway. Or maybe not. Sorry, beautiful or not, a 45 mph speed limit is not for me.
Other national highways take on more specific meaning. Twenty memorials mark the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March Byway, the route taken by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, chronicling their march and its results. For those chasing history from another era, the 180-mile Journey Through Hallowed Ground Byway, which spans Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, is said to contain more historic sites than any other in America. Then there is the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It is named after the late conservationist and philanthropist who was so bothered by the state of the highway that he paid to have it brought up to standard.
For those who need to know or are curious, in 2019 there were 4.2 million miles of roads in America, according to the US Department of Transportation. There were approximately 48,482 miles of Interstate highways; although these highways account for only 1.2% of roadway kilometres, they account for almost a quarter of all car traffic. Of the 4.2 million kilometers of roads in this country, 2.9 million kilometers are rural roads and 1.2 million kilometers are unpaved. No matter how you calculate the numbers, there are plenty of roads to explore.
Each state does its best to help, identifying scenic routes with official signs and designations, with each road map marking them in a special way so they’re easy to recognize. They are usually where I aim my motorcycle. Let me trust the state to point me to a highway they consider special, the smaller its fame the better.
The photographs on these pages represent some of the special places I have found. They are part of my personal story of almost six decades of riding motorcycles, chronicling the changes in my life, both in terms of the motorcycles I have ridden and in how I view the wonderful places along my many miles of driving.
Most appeared out of nowhere, a beautiful place in front of me, something I needed to record for myself and now share with you. In all but a few places they were surprises, rolling around a bend in the freeway or up a hill and voila, a special stretch I had never seen before. Sometimes, at that moment, it was just me; other times, strangers on their motorbikes passed by. I hope that some of those who are part of this collection, if they ever see these images, will find themselves transported to the time when our paths crossed.
Some are from so long ago that I only have a general idea of where they were found. But, come to think of it, their location isn’t what was important. That’s what that stretch of highway meant to me at the time and where it still lingers in my mind. What I knew then as I know now is that there is another great memory, another beautiful stretch of highway to enjoy soon. Now go out and find it.