m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

F E B R U A R Y   1 9 5 6

Accent on Living: The Back Road to Mars

by Charles W. Morton

ON sampling some of the new express highways and turnpikes, one gets the impression that driving on them must be much like travel in outer space. Nothing to see, nothing to do, nothing to indicate whether the day's run is through New Jersey, Maine, or Ohio, or through Phase II of the back road to Mars. There are probably no trees and shrubbery along the interstellar thruways, and doubtless the traveler would miss the familiar landscaping of our own new routes: the frail planations of the center strips; the stubble, beer cans, paper plates, along the side. Otherwise, the two would have a great deal in common. Within the near future, not more than two or three years, a man ought to be able to drive from New York to Los Angeles without having to look at anything at all. "We might as well be in Indiana or Tennessee," my wife remarked, as we were last breezing along the Maine Turnpike. But even as she spoke, the bulldozers and surface-laying machines were adding another sixty-odd miles to extend the non-scenery from Portland to Augusta. One hundred miles, one hundred minutes, but somehow the longest hundred minutes of effortless motoring that anyone could wish.

Conversation dries up quickly on the express road.

"That sign said it's ten miles to the Griggsville exit."
Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

Return to:

  • "Noisy Highways," by Philip Langdon (August, 1997)
    "Only when transportation planners take a more balanced approach will Americans' time on the road become decidedly more enjoyable."


  • "Do we go to Griggsville?"

    "No."

    "Oh."

    Ten miles later: --

    "That was the Griggsville exit."

    "Wat it?"

    "Yes, it's where 207 cuts over to pick up 17A."

    "I didn't notice it."

    "Are you hungry?"

    "Not yet, thanks. It's only ten after ten."

    Each of the new toll roads is controlled by an Authority, and everywhere are the signs of the Authority's power and wisdom. It all seems terribly modern. The standardized filling stations manage to look like the prize-winning exhibit from a school of design, with plumbing fixtures in beige and black, tiles to the last square inch, scrubbed and sanitary. The same air of high-speed cleanliness surrounds the pumps outside and pervades the standardized restaurant where, one feels confident, every frankfurter has been scientifically selected by the Authority's Bureau of Food and Nutrients, and the amount of fat permitted in a hamburger is held to exactly 22 per cent.

    Because no human habitation is ever visible along the express highways, there is some mystery about where the filling station and restaurant people make their homes. The motorist is always amazed at encountering so many hard-working men and women out in what is obviously the middle of nowhere. But no matter where they live, they are thoroughly standardized, the same in one restaurant, and the next, and the next, and the next, and so are the frankfurters.

    When it comes to overnight accommodations, the traveler finds that private enterprise has been concealing itself just off the express highway, and that any old exit will lead him to suitable motels. These are not operated by the all-wise Authority, but they are just as impeccably standardized as the dab of piccalilli on the Authority's standardized frank.

    To avoid getting into an unstandardized motel, the motorist simply consults a list put out by the motel chain, with the result that he can sleep each night on the same sponge-rubber mattress and pillows, tread the same thickly padded wall-to-wall carpeting, and be dazzled by the same chromatic plumbing. A room will provide, also, a television set on which he can see throughout the evening the same network programs that he gets at home. Around his quarters outside are the same cars -- and when he emerges in the morning the same travelers will be piously wiping them down -- that he saw at previous motels. By 8:30 the entire motel population is out on the thruway once again, laying down 60 mph in the sprint to the next motel.

    More stubble-and-paper-plate scenery, and after four hours of it comes another rendezvous with the filling station and frankfurters. The meal is usually a stand-up affair, because one finds that the sit-down restaurant with real tables and chairs is always on the other side of the road, reached only by a tunnel or a long overpass, and no one wants to waste that much time on a mere meal anyhow. But the service in the stand-up place is so rapid that the lunch-break is over in fifteen minutes or so, and the travelers are back on the highway again. It makes a rather long afternoon for them.

    Throughout all driving on the big new express roads is the constant sense of guilt: if the speed limit is sixty and the driver holds that figure, everyone else passes him and he feels like an obstruction to modern traffic; but if he tacks on an extra ten or fifteen miles he is reasonably certain of having a police car's siren screaming at him.

    From a municipal point of view the growing traffic on the new highways is profitless. Why should the Chicagoan pay taxes and tolls for the sole purpose of traversing the stubble-and-paper-plate reaches around Buffalo? Is the Bostonian getting anything on the Jersey Turnpike that he couldn't just as well find in the scrubbier parts of his own state?

    Any city that would like to keep its motorists -- and the industry that thrives on their traffic -- nearer home could do so by creating a municipal expressway of its own. This would be nothing more than a closed circuit, twenty or thirty miles in circumference, screened from all extraneous sights and sounds by embankments planted to yield by the end of the year or two a suitable grade of stubble. The filling stations and restaurants would be just like those on the big roads. At a pinch, or if vacant land were too distant, the whole thing could be underground.


    Copyright © 1956 by Charles W. Morton. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; February 1956; "Accent on Living: The Back Road to Mars"; Volume 197, No. 2; pages 86 - 87.

    m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture