What Roads Really Say About Us
In a small town in Illinois, that once claimed four hotels and now has none, there is a roundabout. It use to have a flagpole in the middle of it, but that too has vanished with time. At the end of WW1, there was a big celebration. People gathered at the flagpole, marched around it, and with pomp and circumstance celebrated the end of the war.
Last month I was recalling my great-uncle telling me about this as we stood on the sidewalk near the roundabout. It came to mind because of the 100th anniversary of that event. The world was celebrating on a big stage but larger than life moments are constructed from smaller singular events in our lives.
It occurs to me that roads – and places like that roundabout - say a lot about who we are as a species. And looking to our past is a good way to judge what I am saying here. For our history is ripe with roads changing our destiny or being referenced in culture.
Would America be America if Lewis and Clark hadn't journeyed to the West Coast and back? That led to the Oregon Trail, the 49ers (not the football team, sorry NFL fans), and our coast to coast expansion.
“All roads lead to Rome” wasn't simply a saying, it was a fact. Romans understood that roads connect people and offer different cultures to come together in peace. Roads were also a source of power. Have a question, need an answer, travel to Rome to get it. Go to any ancient city in the Middle East and you'll find roads named for a destination. The Old City of Jerusalem for instance has the Jaffa Gate and the Damascus Gate where the Roman road runs alongside.
But it isn't simply connectivity. Roads also represent exploration. We love to explore. Whether it is to find out what's on the other side of the Alleghenies or to drive down a back road we've never been on before, we love to make the trek.
In the mid-20th century, Americans made it a ritual. Was there anything more American than the road trip? Just 'hop in the car and go' gave us travel centers where you could hitch a ride with complete strangers; convertibles so the wind could blow our hair as we went; “On The Road' so we could read about the lifestyle of those who never left the journey; the great Sturgis Bike Rally for those who prefer two wheels instead of four; and in some respect Disneyland where we just piled the kids into a station wagon (once owned by a Griswold) for a weekend visit to Mickey.
Roads we build aren't simply for going to work or the quick trip to pick up a pizza, they are representative of our very instinct to go explore the world that exist beyond our horizon. They say Virtual Reality will offer the same experience without leaving the front room. That may be so but the people seen in V.R. won't be real like the ones around that flagpole a century ago. The only way to see and meet the real people is find out where that road in front of the house leads. The only way to do that is to get in the car and go. You can't be certain of what you'll find or experience but be assured, the journey defines you.