Saturday, May 22, 2004

I-94 blog.

Rain all through last night. More to come. Our garden is partly underwater now. Didn’t build it up high enough. Still, the sump pump in the lower level of the house was in fine fettle last night. It might be an inanimate object, but it’s my friend.

In the fullness of its course, Interstate 94 runs from Port Huron, Michigan, at the southern tip of Lake Huron, to a junction with Interstate 90 near Billings, Montana. Or vice versa, if you want. It was the road I used to visit metro Detroit early this week, and to return to Chicago. On the whole, it’s one of the better Interstate spokes emerging from Chicago, in terms of visuals. Instead of the flat, endless corn and soybean fields that you see along I-65 to Indianapolis or I-55 to St. Louis, you get some mildly rolling terrain, a lot of trees, some farm land, and other distractions for the eye. May is especially good, with its newfound greenery.

On the other hand, construction sites were all too common, especially bridge work. Out in the rural stretches, a lane closure usually doesn’t slow things down, but construction anywhere near a town means a slowdown. Part of this is unavoidable. Assuming these projects aren’t pure pork for some state or federal rep, roads need to be fixed, and spring is the time to get started.

But part of it’s also the moron factor. Example: not far outside greater Detroit, westbound on I-94, a distinctive orange sign warned us that the right lane would be closed in two miles. Two miles. Traffic was thick enough, but not so heavy that everyone riding in the right lane couldn’t merge left long before two miles were up. As I watched from the left lane, a string of cars in the right stayed in that lane as the one-mile and half-mile warning signs flew by, waiting until the orange barrels were practically in front of them to merge. Which bollixed the forward flow of traffic, of course.

But that’s a minor complaint. If you bitch about the tedium of the Interstates, I think, you aren’t paying attention (with certain exceptions). Most of the time there’s something to see and think about. Town and road names can have their charms. Paw Paw, Michigan, besides its distinctive name, reminds me of my freshman year at Vanderbilt. There was a vending machine in our dorm that stocked a tasty set of fruit juices bottled in Paw Paw that I haven’t seen since. Also, to illustrate that place-names in North America are delightfully varied, along or near I-94 there’s Dowagiac, Albion, Derereaux, Partello, Vandercook, Waterloo, and two of my favorites anywhere, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti.

Then there’s the life of the road, and the towns served by the road. People who call it flyover territory are fools. I saw a lot of state police out on the road, doing their part to shore up anemic state revenues on an uninteresting and occasionally lethal beat. I-94 is a major truck route, naturally, and I noticed that the 55 mph speed limit for trucks has had some effect in slowing them down. Probably not because the state says so, but because HQ says so, to control insurance costs. I’ve read that GPS and other technical refinements have regimented a trucker’s life fairly tightly; I wonder what it’s like.

There are all flashes of life visible through some of the larger towns. Near Battle Creek, I think, I passed a high school sports field, and a girls' soccer game was in full swing. How many of those kids hate growing up in Battle Creek, which they know from television and movies is nowhere, since all the glamour is in the cities? How many can’t imagine living anywhere else? According to signs, there are a lot of wineries along the route. I didn’t take time to visit any, but I would like to sometime. Must be a tenacious bunch, the vintners of Michigan. “You make wine where?”

If there’s nothing visually stimulating, there’s always rural radio. The dial is infested with genre radio, like it is in the cities, and curiously enough that renders the AM band the more interesting of the two in the long stretches between urbanized areas. Only some of AM is genre. In the afternoons, you can always count on finding Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura offering their syndicated shtick, but also things you can’t hear anywhere else. Semi-professional commercials for community banks, independent drug stores, and farm equipment. Local news from the counties you’re passing through. Every sort of fundamentalist radio preacher you can imagine. At one point I was listening to a syndicated music program that seemed to be founded on Frank Sinatra and pop of his era -- until “Calypso” by John Denver played. The show was hosted by Wink Martindale.


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