Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Road Trip, Part 2

The National Road had its start before the birth of the nation. George Washington was among a company of men who blazed a trail from Cumberland, Md., to the Monongahela River. That route would be followed a half century later when, in 1805, a proposal was put through Congress for “a road from Cumberland… within the state on Maryland, to the river Ohio.” Begun in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the highway would become the only one ever built directly by the federal government.

The road reached the Ohio in 1818, but it had not gone nearly far enough to serve the needs of pioneers pushing westward, nor the needs of farmers shipping produce eastward from the newly settled territories. By 1839, the road had reach Vandalia, Ill., where construction halted for good over a route dispute.

From Vandalia westward, the history of Route 40 (not to be confused with Interstate 40, which takes a more southerly course across the country and incorporates much of old Route 66) is not as old but just as rich. From the Mississippi, the road parallels the railroad tracks, which in turn follow the Smokey Hill Trail to Denver, along which Fort Hays, Fort Russell, Fort Wallace and other outposts of the U.S. Army were built in the 1800s.

From Atlantic City, N.J., to Park City, Utah, Route 40 today is a commercial route. It is used by shoppers, by local people, by school buses and farmers. But there are few travelers.
It was a road built and used by people brimming with optimism, and it is a road littered with the debris of their ambitions. This was our first impression as Alice and I set off on this road one dreary March morning in 1996.

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