A Man, A Corvette, and the Interstates by Claude Clayton Smith

LAPPING AMERICA: A Man, A Corvette, and the Interstates (an excerpt)

I THOUGHT I’d come up with the perfect vanity plates for my big trip—LAP USA. After all, that’s exactly what I was doing, making a grand lap of America, one turn on the Interstates around the perimeter of the forty-eight states. But not everybody read those plates the same way. One college student at an Ohio rest area wanted to know what kind of laptop I was using. He had an Apple Powerbook G3/300 with third-generation power PC chips and he was going to speed bump that puppy to 400 megahertz. What did I think of that? I told him I thought Megahertz was a giant car rental company and he shook his head in disgust. Then there was the woman of a certain profession at a Mississippi Welcome Center who offered to use my lap in any way I wanted. I respectfully declined. So much for vanity plates. LAP USA. I think next time I’ll go incognito. But it’s hard to do in a red Corvette.

* * *

I left on a Monday—September 13, 1999—towards the end of a summer filled with disasters both natural and man-made. The East Coast was burning up, the West Coast was burning down, and hurricanes were brewing in the Atlantic like a manic coffeepot. We had endured the loss of John-John, a string of mass murders, and were in the throes of the Y2K countdown. Hurricane Dennis had lingered through Labor Day, confounding the Eastern Seaboard, ending vacations prematurely, sending children back to school in a sour mood. But in Ohio all was green and quiet. Our village of Ada had escaped the droughts that were ravaging the nation. The weather’d been beautiful for days—blue skies, low humidity, and temperatures no more than eighty—absolutely perfect for my departure. Until the very last minute.

Sunday night I woke to rain on the roof, then the day dawned dark and drizzly, foggy and cold—Charles Lindbergh weather. The Internet said Hurricane Floyd was on its way, a Category 4 threatening to become a “Cat-5.” Weather-watchers were unanimous in their warnings: “Keep a very, very close eye on the progress of this major hurricane!” But there was more. The season’s ninth tropical depression had been upgraded to a tropical storm—Gert. “No teeth for the present,” I mused stoically, as Macbeth had said of Banquo’s son.

Backing the ’Vette from the garage at eight-fifteen, I hit a switch and the headlights somersaulted from the hood to reveal the slanting rain. It was the first time I’d used the headlights, the first time the car had been rained on. Not good vibes. In the headlights’ full glare my wife and son, who had not yet returned to college, stood silhouetted in the garage like criminals, their shadows large on the wall. But there was only one criminal in our rural neighborhood that morning—me. I was abandoning home, job, and family (with everyone’s blessing!) to pursue a long-standing personal dream. With a toot of the horn I slipped into the fog like a thief, then headed up Main Street to I-75, passing a colleague on her way in to work. She glanced at the ’Vette but didn’t see me, the day dark enough without my tinted windows. I could imagine the classes she’d be teaching, the meetings she’d attend, and suddenly I was buoyant, gripped by a giddy sense of release. The brief encounter helped me focus on the task ahead. This woman’s husband had argued that Interstate medians should be used for rail service, and as I reached the entrance ramp it seemed like an idea worth exploring.

I-75 to Toledo cuts through the wide-open outback of northwest Ohio. The terrain—mostly farmland planted with corn, wheat, and soybeans—is flat, but not oppressively so. In some places it might be said to roll, but I have a friend in Maryland who says I’m deceived by this, that I’ve been living in Ohio for too long. Still, the I–75 landscape has two distinct features I would see nowhere else in America. The first is an abundance of farm ponds. You see a farm pond every few minutes. At every entrance, exit, and overpass farm ponds hug the highway to either side. Some are fringed with cattails, others have sandy beaches, and a few are protected from the west wind by rows of white pine. The shorelines are ringed with riprap, chunky gray quarry stone that prevents the banks from eroding. Almost all are rectangular—some long and thin, others nearly square—but very few are round, the more natural shape you’d expect.

Why all the ponds? The answer is simple. When I-75 was constructed in the late ’50s and early ’60s, fill dirt was needed for access ramps and inclines. Rather than truck the dirt in, engineers dug it on the spot. The result was a host of “borrow pits,” precise excavations several acres in size. Then nature took over. Rain and run-off turned the pits into farm ponds, and state officials worked with local farmers to stock them. If the farmers didn’t want fish, the birds stocked them anyway. Migrating ducks and geese and other waterfowl encounter a good deal of fish eggs. When they take off, the fish go with them, populating the next pond down the road. At least that’s what the biologists tell me.

The second feature—totally annoying compared to the pastoral farm ponds—is the woodlots. Having grown up back East, I’m used to forests that run on and on. You can’t tell where they begin and you can’t tell where they end. Eastern forests are continuous, but not so in northwest Ohio, where forest is entirely the wrong word. Trees occur across the horizon in scattered woodlots ranging in size from a few acres to several hundred. Ohio was once totally forested, but pioneers developed special methods of clear-cutting, notching trunks across a wide area so that the crash of a single tree would tumble many more like matchsticks. Once the land was cleared and the stumps had been exhumed, subsequent growths returned—where allowed—in neurotic units. Hence the regular blocks of elm, oak, swamp maple, thorny locust, and tall cottonwoods that fill the air in summer with a pillowy fluff.

A landscape of woodlots takes some getting used to. Treed stretches end as abruptly as they begin—end and begin, end and begin. The discontinuity is irritating, offending some sensibility deep within the self in the way that small children are disturbed by disembodied figures. And the woodlots cause a more practical problem— they bring the deer out of hiding, in search of vegetation at the very next woodlot. In the early morning you can see the deer bounding from block to block, leaping above the corn, wheat, and soybeans. I used to mistake them for large dogs, but they’re faster and more nimble. The Ohio Division of Wildlife estimates that there are half a million deer in the state right now. Everybody knows someone who’s hit one with a car, if they haven’t hit one themselves. Diamond-shaped yellow signs with the silhouette of a leaping buck warn you where they cross I-75.

But not this morning. In the rain and fog and spray of mist from the trucks I couldn’t see those yellow signs, let alone the farm ponds and woodlots. Traffic was heavier than I had expected—as many trucks as cars—and construction areas demanded careful attention. Thanks to President Clinton’s record $203 billion highway bill, summer motorists had been warned to expect construction on an average of every forty miles. It was still summer and the predictions proved correct. I encountered two such areas before I had gone fifty miles.

At nine-thirty I pulled into a rest area just south of Bowling Green. The outside temperature, according to my dashboard monitor, had risen to a damp sixty-five degrees. I-75 rest areas are welcome oases—entirely green, entirely clean. This one was no exception. Trucks to the left, cars to the right. Then an attractive brick comfort station, with picnic tables and charcoal grills along winding sidewalks though a grove of tall trees. I parked among a host of empty spaces at the far end of the lot, just beyond a green Corvette the same year as mine. Its driver, returning from the brick building, waved briefly and the unexpected gesture thrilled me, my first ever from a fellow ’Vette owner, confirming my membership in some sort of club. In the weeks to come I would count fifty-eight Corvettes around the nation—mostly in Texas and Florida—exchanging salutes with many of the drivers. But that initial nod of recognition seemed to validate my mission, a moment of Corvette karma that dispelled the uncertainty I was beginning to feel about getting out of my own ’Vette to ask total strangers about the Interstates.

Out of the rain in the brick building, I approached an attractive young woman by the water fountain. “The Interstates?” she said. “I don’t know. I slept most of the way. He drove.” She nodded at her husband, who was exiting the men’s room, staring at me as if I was trying to pick up his wife. Remembering my own wife’s trauma, I suddenly became self-conscious. The last thing I wanted was to become an Interstate intimidator.

“We drove all night from Florida,” the husband said bluntly, reclaiming his wife by putting an arm around her shoulder. “We’re heading home to Michigan. The Interstates are less crowded at night because the trucks pull off to sleep. There are no towns, no stops, so it’s an easy roll. A straight shot home. Ready, honey?” He turned his back on me and they walked away.

An elderly Canadian gentleman, waiting for his wife, was less threatened by me. “The Interstates are the only roads we ever take for any distance,” he said. “They’re clean, well serviced, and in good shape. We’re just returning from Branson, Missouri.”

Outside again—the rain had let up—I explained to a lanky trucker and his shorter

driving-partner what a colleague had said about trucks ruining the Interstates.

“You tell that guy,” the tall one said, “that everything in his home is delivered by trucks. The railroads can’t do it as fast. The economy would fold without trucks on the Interstates.”

His partner tugged on the bill of his cap, anxious to get back on the road. “The main problem for us is the damn construction. It’s dangerous ’cause it takes so long to get done. They’s always draggin’ their feet. Meanwhile, people’s gettin’ killed.”

On my way back to the ’Vette I took note of two signs. One said Welcome To Ohio… The Heart Of It All, a message repeated in German, Spanish, Japanese, French, and Italian—the only Interstate sign I would see in all of America in more than two languages. The second, which I’d see more frequently, said The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate Highways, its words surrounded by five white stars for the five-star general. Having never served in the military, I gave it my best Corvette salute.

It started raining again—hard—as I continued north to Toledo, where I picked up I-80 and my grand lap officially began.

Stopping for a ticket at the tollbooth, I was overwhelmed by a sense of occasion. I

imagined myself in one of those toy Hot Wheels Corvettes on a huge relief map of

America—large enough to cover an entire basketball court—with its raised mountain ranges, color-coded elevations, and long blue rivers. My little car was pointing east from Toledo and I had ten thousand miles ahead of me, the entire circumference of the forty-eight states. As I plucked the ticket from the automatic metal mouth, I was struck by the enormity of what I was undertaking. Then the ticket was in my shirt pocket and I flew from the gate.

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BIO: Claude Clayton Smith wrote: “This 2,000-word travel essay is excerpted from the opening chapter of my book by the same title, published in 2006, by Burford Books, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Dwight D. Eisenhower system of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, I am the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of two others. My own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. For further information see my Web site: claudeclaytonsmith.wordpress.com”