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My main purpose for driving 3,000 miles across a seldom-seen ribbon of the American landscape last summer was to unearth the true and generally forgotten origins of the Interstate Highway System, said to be the greatest construction project in world history.
But there was a secondary purpose too, and it also involved a superlative, albeit a more subjective one: I wanted to visit the small Iowa town of Denison, since it was the birthplace of the woman whom I had supposed, from my teenage years, to be the loveliest on the planet.
As it happened, Denison was on the very route I planned – a happy coincidence that I discovered only when reading through the diaries of the man who undertook the first journey on that route, almost a century ago: Dwight D Eisenhower, at the time a young army major, later to become the 34th president of the United States, and the man after whom the interstate system is now named.
It was 1919, the first world war was over, and some nervous US generals were beginning to fret – with extraordinary prescience – over the growing territorial ambitions of Japan. What, they wondered, if Japanese ships were ever to bombard the coast of California? How quickly could American soldiers be sent from the great bases in the eastern states to defend the territory of the west? Could they make it across country, rapidly, by road?
To test the idea, they assembled a convoy – a three-mile-long armada of tanks, armoured cars, commissary trucks, jeeps, mobile hospitals, personnel carriers, motorbikes – and mustered on the south lawn of the White House on a rainy summer morning in 1919. Among their number was the promising young major-made-temporary colonel Eisenhower, appointed to observe and to keep a diary. At the sound of a bugle and a hoisted flag, the caravan set off: their goal was to reach Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and with all deliberate speed.
Had the Japanese ever invaded, they would have had a field day. It took the convoy 58 wrenching, wretched, miserable days to cross the country – for the simple reason that beyond the Missouri river, there were essentially no roads at all. Tanks got stuck in sand; bridges collapsed; armoured cars rolled down hills and into ditches; snowstorms stranded the party in Colorado, rainstorms bogged them down in Pennsylvania, there were accidents, injuries and near-mutinies.
When finally they limped into San Francisco – cheered by the much better road system in California, and feted by relieved local mayors who imagined the entire party lost – they had been on the road for almost two months. They had crossed the country at an average speed of less than 6mph. Had the Japanese landed, they would probably have fought their way across Arizona and New Mexico, and maybe have been taking on Texas too, before any serious eastern resistance could be assembled to stand in their way.
Eisenhower’s diary of the expedition, which he kept meticulously, records in mordant detail the daily list of mishaps, and the experience left him shaken.
The implication was clear. So great a nation, so vast an engine of commerce and industry – and yet equipped with roadways more suited to the Balkans, or the interior of Africa, or the steppes of central Asia. Were he ever to win any kind of authority, Eisenhower mused, he would see to it that the nation had a system of roadways matchless in their size, scope, scale and quality. Their construction would be a vital step on making this the greatest capitalist economy under the sun.
Last summer I took a copy of his road-trip diary, packed a series of maps, a tent and a sleeping bag and the wherewithal for some weeks of wandering, and set off in my Land Rover from Washington DC, heading west along the route the soldiers had taken 90-odd years before. I would try to visit every place they had seen: only I would try to make it to San Francisco rather more quickly.
A smallish road, US Route 30 – not an interstate by any means but more often a two-lane country corridor known as the Lincoln Highway – underpins most of the present-day journey. Right from the start it was clear that driving along it is delightfully different from the usual trans-America experience: the ribbon of asphalt dips and rises over the Appalachian ranges and then into the gentle Ohio farmlands; there are silos here, and barns and fields of cattle, there are country stores and churches. When you buy your fuel, an old-timer will stand by the pump and talk about the weather and the crops. There is none of that on the interstates: just Burger Kings and Mobil stations and the endless urgent press of westbound commerce.
I usually did about 200 miles a day – the 1919 expedition was lucky if it managed 60 but, then, a Discovery 4 is rather more reliable than an old Dodge truck, and the road for them had become progressively worse as the party headed out into the Midwest.
In 1919 they had been under army canvas; I, on the other hand, spent most nights at campsites inside state parks – usually at a bend in a river or on a bluff with a stunning view. Some of the sites were simple and serene. Near Clear Lake, Iowa, I drank in a lyrically perfect sunset at the McIntosh Woods state park – and then took dinner in a bar a mile or so away, near where Buddy Holly had died in that unforgotten plane crash of 1959 – the moment that indelibly marked The Day the Music Died, with Don McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie” memorialising the tragedy. I drove back quietly to my tent and then gazed for a while over the moonlit waters, listening to the sounds of “Peggy Sue” drifting from another tent, its occupants similarly moved.
Other sites were more fantastic. I camped one warm and star-filled night beneath the 250-metre orange sandstone spear of Utah’s Steamboat Rock, down on the Green River, just above where it joins the Colorado and begins to burrow down into Grand Canyon. The trail down was a dozen miles of winding terror, sagebrush-edged ridges and a feeling of utter isolation. No one else was there, until a motorcyclist from Sweden, who also loved the solitude, showed up. At such sites there may or may not be a resident ranger: if he’s not around, everything is left to trust – you put $5 in a lockbox, you find a pile of dry wood and build yourself a fire, and in its light you pitch your tent while the soup bubbles in the flames.
It was out of season when I made the trip, and there were seldom more than a half dozen other campers, and we’d talk and share beers and travel tips. When Eisenhower went there, he shared company with 300 soldiers, and they spent their nights hammering their broken trucks back into shape, welding iron, cleaning carburettors, filtering gasoline for the next day’s drive. You could tell from the tone of Eisenhower’s diaries that he was often tired and exasperated: how, he wondered to himself, could America put up with such roads?
I didn’t always camp. Sweetly generous country folk put me up from time to time. A family in western Ohio spotted my Massachusetts licence plate, and invited me to stay at their vineyard, where they made gallons of too-sweet white wine. A group of Amish farmers in a corner of Indiana, the men sporting an unusually un-Amish passion for collecting old steam engines, offered help and company. And in western Iowa I was put up by a farm family with whom I had worked bringing in the corn crop when I was a student, 50 years before.
Across the Missouri in Omaha, back in 1919, the roads gave out altogether, and the states of Nebraska and Kansas and Colorado were just immense sand traps, with vague lines of poles marking where foolhardy drivers might follow.
Today the newer road, potholed in places maybe, winds on imperturbably: over 10 days of easy progress it lifted me up the gently sloping plains and on to the Rocky Mountain foothills, then over the wide and windy passes, treeless and cold, then across the great inland deserts and salt flats to the massive wall of the Sierras, and finally down through the west coast forests to the tiny obelisk in Lincoln Park that marked the end of Eisenhower’s odyssey, and the point where he made his famous promise to himself that one day America would have the road system it deserved.
There were countless low points on Eisenhower’s extraordinary adventure – and, with all the disasters it suffered, more lows than highs, one suspects. But in my much-lesser expedition there was a singular high – and that, just as I wanted, was my mission to Denison.
The convoy had stopped there, at what was then a bustling cow-town 45 miles east of the Missouri. They had played a Sunday baseball game: “Denison 15, Convoy 1”, Eisenhower recorded. “Band concert in courthouse in the evening. Also movies at the Opera House for the Convoy personnel. Dirt roads. Heavy dust.”
A child named Donna Mullenger had been born in Denison two years later, in 1921. As a youngster she had wanted to be a teacher but there was no money to pay for school. So like many, she took off for Hollywood. MGM signed her in 1941 – first as Donna Adams and then, needing an easier name for her growing stardom, as Donna Reed. I first saw her as George Bailey’s wife Mary in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a Christmas favourite in my family. To my fevered teenage mind back then, she was the most adorable woman on earth. To have the chance to see her birthplace, even 50 years on, was worth a detour but, thanks to Eisenhower, no detour was necessary.
So yes, there is a shrine. Her Oscar (for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, a lesser film, I always thought) is there; the old Opera House where Eisenhower’s dust-drenched soldiers were entertained is now the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center; and some local entrepreneur imported a drugstore counter from Fat Moe’s in Chicago, and it stands in Denison, a perfect replica of the one in Capra’s fictional town of Bedford Falls.
But all that celluloid magic aside, I must confess that Denison has been spoiled – and by something that never existed back when the soldiers went by, nor even when Miss Mullenger was growing up.
It has been spoiled by cattle. For there is an immense beef industry feedlot just outside town, to its west – and when the prevailing winds get up, the town suffers under an almost visible miasma of cattle smell, a fetid slump of manure and chemicals and dust, all created in the interests of allowing Americans to have their steaks and hamburgers in the endless abundance they demand.
And thus is a dream dimmed. Not ruined, maybe – for me, Denison, Iowa, will always have a certain magic. But, still, I have to admit that it is not quite the place I wanted it to be – and so that evening I drove on west, to Omaha, to Salt Lake City, and then eventually across the mountains to the ocean.
And when eventually I came back east I drove along the interstates – named the Eisenhower System in his honour – and I took four days to get back to New York, and I was quite content to give Donna Reed’s aromatic birthplace a miss.
‘The Men Who United the States’ by Simon Winchester is published by HarperCollins