Highways: Escape from Reality

In her contribution to the catalog for the upcoming exhibition “Highways and Rest Stops: Passages in Current Practice,” co-curator Jacquelyn Strycker discusses the ontology and imagination of the American highway. (Image: David Thompson Highway)

“And you may ask yourself

Where does that highway go to?” — Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The highway is never our terminus. Instead, it’s a stretch between places — a journey, a process, a connector of past and future, of possibilities. As we travel on the highway, we paradoxically venture into the open frontier within the contained space of the automobile, experiencing the landscape through the car window, time concurrently passing at two speeds.

The history of the highway is, of course, intertwined with the history of the automobile. In the early twentieth century, car ownership was relatively rare and highways were non-existent. Roads were unmarked and unpaved — dusty or muddy and filled with potholes. There were no traffic signals, no signs to announce that one was passing through Esopus, population, 1480, or that New York City was 99 miles ahead. Indeed, in 1910, the Brooklyn Eagle declared “automobiling” to be “the last call of the wild.”1

Yet by 1927 there was one automobile for every five people in the United States. And, although a car is a privately owned vessel, it’s necessarily driven in, over and through public spaces — public spaces that needed to be paved, and marked, and dotted with gas stations. Thus, in the name of mobility, began a tradition of publicly funding the creation of highways — passageways not for the public, but for individuals in their cars.

The Federal Highway Act of 1938 financed the study of the feasibility of a system of three east-west and three north-south national highways. In 1944, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which authorized the construction of a 41,000 mile National System of Interstate Highways. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, signed into law by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, authorized a budget of $25 billion for the project, of which the federal share was to be 90%. The Interstate was designed not only to enable safe, fast, transcontinental travel, but also to facilitate the evacuation of target areas in the event of an atomic attack.2 The highway system was planned as a means of escape.

And the highway continues to be an escape route — not from a cold war attack, but from the outside world. Radio on, temperature controlled, windshield framing the panorama, full speed ahead.

Jackson, Kenneth T. "The New Age of Automobility.” In Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, 157-171. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985

“Roads to Somewhere.” The Economist, June 22, 2006, 36-38.