The Longest Highway

Throughout these postings, I’ve hinted at the unique nature of US Route 20.  With my travelogue complete, now seems the appropriate time to thoroughly explore this subject.

So, what makes Route 20 so special?  For starters, no other American road covers more ground.  At 3,365 miles long, Route 20 outclasses ’em all, including the much vaunted Interstate 90, which we paralleled and sometimes traversed on our journey.  In fact, Route 20 and I-90 lend themselves – and by extension, the rival road systems they represent – to much comparison.

You see, America’s major roadways are split between two sprawling networks.  There is the United States Numbered Highways (U.S. Highways or routes) and the Interstate Highway System.  The U.S. Highways was formed in 1926 by linking the primitive auto trails that had popped up across the country following the advent of the automobile. While this brought organization to the chaotic road maps, not everyone was pleased, as colorful names like the Lincoln Highway were replaced with the simple numbered routes we know of today. Detractors notwithstanding, the Highways became the main linkage between cities and states for three decades.

This arrangement lasted until 1956.  In that year, the push for an updated transportation network, led by President Eisenhower, resulted in the formation of the Interstate System.  Interestingly, this mammoth project was spurred on not by the needs of commerce or convenience, but by national defense concerns.  Ike, among others, agonized over how the U.S. would respond to a potential invasion or other nationwide disaster.  Building the Interstate alleviated these concerns, as this would allow troops and supplies to be ferried quickly across the country in case of an emergency.

Construction of the Interstate had a tremendous impact on the American way of life. People could now zip across the United States without dealing with pesky local traffic. This is fantastic if you’re heading up to the beach or transporting goods across state lines.  But what were the ramifications for the traveler, the wanderer, the road tripper?

If we had used I-90 as our primary road, our trip could have reasonably been completed in a week or so.   But we would not have really seen the country.  Before leaving on my journey, I was advised by a number of people to read John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels With Charley.  I picked up a copy in a Portland bookstore and found the late Nobel Laureate shares my gripes, arguing that much is lost when hurtling down the Interstate.

The Interstate intentionally bypasses major population centers in the interests of speed. Route 20, however, took us into the heart of towns we would have otherwise cruised past.  The Interstate mandated we drive faster than a mile a minute and pause only to empty our bladders.  With Route 20, the pace was less frenetic and the layout allowed us to pull off and take pictures of the gorgeous countryside.

Most importantly though, the America found alongside Route 20 is vibrant and alive and has stories to share.  Pittsfield’s town square; Erie’s deserted downtown; Dubuque’s riverside views; Thermopolis’ centennial; Bend’s clash of cultures.  All would have been left unseen and unexamined.

To be fair, the Interstate System is a monumental feat.  Indeed, it serves as proof that a great country needs a great infrastructure.  But for the sake of experiencing that great country, nothing compares to taking the long and winding road.


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