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Roads and the Mystique of Freedom
Road builders do an amazing thing. They pulverize rock and turn it into opportunity and a chance to live the American dream. We must suppress this elitist urge to limit mobility, because roads are freedom.
— John Caldara, President of the Independence Institute
And it made most people nervous. They just didn’t want to know what I was seeing in the refuge of the roads
— Joni Mitchell
Wildlands CPR works to protect and restore wildland ecosystems by preventing and removing roads…
— From Wildlands CPR’s mission statement
Roads have always been a part of my life. My childhood family, like many others, took summer vacations by car. Sometimes we’d drive in our ’57 Mercury north from St. Louis on U.S. 55 to Chicago, car wheels clicking a steady rhythm over the cement-sectioned road. Other times my parents would take my two brothers and me to the beaches of Florida, always packing our meals and stopping at small shady roadside parks with solid stone picnic tables. Occasionally we would drive north past Chicago to the Michigan beaches, swimming in the great lake, but also bouncing in dune buggies over the 200-foot high dunes.
To many Americans, roads mean “freedom,” and it sure seemed that way to me, rolling along the road with my family. But where does this “roads = freedom” equation come from? It appears it is deeply imbedded in our collective psyche. Shedding some light on its origins, then, may help us understand why those of us who are concerned about roads (albeit a much different kind than paved ones) find some resistance, or at least confusion, when we talk about “preventing and removing” them.
This sense of freedom associated with roads developed in the U.S. over the past half-century. It’s the idea that you can (with enough gas money) jump in your car and go anywhere you please, at any time, and leave your cares and life behind. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road jump-started this mystique of freedom with the wild adventures of Sal and Dean and women and wheels. Then the idea gained speed, this time traveling a particular road, the famous Route 66. “Get your kicks on Route 66” became a catch phrase for countless motorists who moved back and forth between Chicago and the Pacific Coast, reinforcing the idea of driving and roads as vehicles of pleasure and adventure. A “Route 66” television series motored into living rooms in the 1960’s, a popular series with this free-traveling ‘50’s and ‘60’s culture, vicariously bringing viewers back to their free life on the road.
Ironically, the public’s demand for speed and improved highways that gained Route 66 its enormous popularity also signaled its demise in the mid-1950’s. Mass federal sponsorship for an interstate system of divided highways greatly increased with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term in the White House, and provided the financial umbrella to underwrite the cost of Ike’s national interstate and defense highway system—what has become our modern day, 43,000 miles of Interstate highways that replaced the iconic 66.
Singer-songwriter John Gorka summarizes our culture’s inextricable ties to roads and freedom in his song, “Oh Abraham:”
I was born by a Kerouac stream
Under Eisenhower skies
They saw freedom as a big idea
Now it was right before my eyes
They say Jack helped to build the Pentagon
And Ike built the interstate that we are off and on
Off and on
And who doesn’t have a road story of his or her own as personal witness to this mystique?
I got my driver’s license at 8 a.m. the morning of my sixteenth birthday. I was giddy with excitement, on the edge of my seat and possibility as I sat in the car alone for the first time, free to drive anywhere—at least, according to my Mother, within a certain radius of my home. When I left St. Louis at age twenty in my VW Beetle, roads took me over the Kansas prairie—a soft full moon rising one evening on the flat Midwest horizon like a huge creamy pearl—on to the Colorado Rockies, then further west to the southern California coast and the end of the road at the Pacific Ocean. Eventually I wound back through New Mexico—my Shepherd-mix dog sitting in the passenger seat, nose pressing the windshield marking her desire as strong as mine to look and move forward and onward—and on to Kansas City, then the southern Appalachians. I settled in North Carolina and raised a family. But I didn’t stop driving.
When I moved out west fifteen years ago, and at times got off the paved main roads and onto other roads—roads on public lands—my road-trip sense of freedom began to crumble like worn-out asphalt. All roads, I began to realize, aren’t created equal. And it is in this fact that the road-freedom mystique takes a sharp turn.
Roads on public lands—the kind of roads Wildlands CPR deals with—are very different than “normal” roads. A post World War II boom in timber production was carving thousands of miles of roads across our public lands and through wildlife habitat. As a result, more than 550,000 miles were created—more than enough to drive to the moon and back. Many of these roads, not built for transportation but solely for timber harvest and never removed after the cut, lead to dead-ends in the forest, literal roads to nowhere.
As much as roads are opportunities for humans, I began to see that they are missed opportunities for wildlife. While even some public land roads are paved or graveled and like their urban counterparts serve as needed throughways, many other public land roads—tens of thousands of miles—are not only old, eroding and dangerous, but split wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces. This creates a twisting turning maze of roads through the land, making it difficult for some species that require large expanses of natural areas—like elk and wolves and grizzly bears—to thrive. Besides splitting habitat, public land roads also allow off-road vehicles ways to get from the frontcountry to the backcountry, leaving wildlife vulnerable to increased stress, overhunting and poaching.
To reduce these impacts, a mere thirty years ago in 1978 some of the first road removal started in the U.S., in Redwood National Park. Wildlands CPR was created sixteen years later in part “…to protect and restore wildland ecosystems by preventing and removing roads…”
Do we imagine, maybe unconsciously when we think of roads, that removing them somehow removes our freedoms too? Could the idea of road removal symbolize downsizing our culture of growth, dismantling such a defining part of our heritage and thereby “diminishing” our opportunities? (“…a chance to live the American dream,” according to the Independence Institute.) Is it hard for us to admit that we may have too much of something (like public land roads) and do something (like remove some of them) to have less?
As T. H. Watkins wrote as he witnessed a road removal project in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho,
This [road removal] is not an activity for which Uncle Sam is noted. Quite the opposite, in fact—a truth that had come through with particular force earlier that day when I drove through portions of the Clearwater. The brow of just about every mountain I saw was scarred by tier upon tier of roads.
Eight years ago a few of us were invited by the Forest Service to revegetate an old road they had removed in southwest Montana. Two years later when the new plantings had taken hold and the road was effectively closed to motorized traffic, grizzly bears, moose, elk and other animals were once again free to make their way through that land, unhindered by the problems the road used to bring.
Did we replace our freedom to move across the landscape on roads with the grizzly’s freedom to move without them?
No. It’s win-win. We still have our freedom to travel on plenty of other roads, and grizzlies and other species now have a little more freedom too.
Many questions remain. Although there is a certain undeniable freedom we associate with roads, are we smart enough and creative enough to flip this freedom on its head, by claiming the freedom of taking roads out? Can we expand our freedom, by freeing the natural world from the confines and impacts of a road running through its habitat? Are we big enough to say we erred in our road-building binge? Can we just say “no” to more road building and “yes” to removing roads and bringing back clean streams, healthy forests, and fully-functioning watersheds?
It is clear that we now have enough roads to go around, and around and around. The next step in our evolution may be to self-correct, re-balance the scales, and get back on course with the natural world.