Thursday, September 16, 2004

Byways blog.

Before I drive someplace new, I consult maps. I know people, highly educated people no less, who would no more do this than sacrifice a goat or two to ensure a safe journey. I can’t fathom that turn of mind, since maps are my friends.

So I consult my friends before I go, several if possible, though my default map of choice is the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I buy a new one almost every year. A few years ago, however, I also picked up a brand-new, first-edition Michelin North America Road Atlas. Rand McNally is organized by state, which is comforting in a way, but can lead to distortions -- Rhode Island, for instance, gets a whole page, but so do the much larger Idaho, Louisiana and Mississippi, for example, and Alaska for that matter, though that state isn’t long on macadam. Michelin divides the continent into rectangles, disregarding state borders.

I was examining the Michelin map covering the junction of Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota a few weeks ago, ahead of my recent trip to that part of the country, and noticed a road -- a actually a meandering set of minor roads in western Iowa, including Iowa 12, Iowa 987, L20 (a county road?), Iowa 183, Iowa 127 and others -- outlined in purple. I hadn’t noticed that marking before, so I checked the master key and found out that it designates a National Scenic Byway.

This was a new term for me. Naturally I called on Mr. Google to help me find out more, and it took me to Among other things, I learned that: “The National Scenic Byways Program is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. The program is a grass-roots collaborative effort established to help recognize, preserve and enhance selected roads throughout the United States. Since 1992, the National Scenic Byways Program has provided funding for almost 1500 state and nationally designated byway projects in 48 states. [Two states, alas, must not be scenic at all. Or maybe they’re standing up for states’ rights in this matter. ] The U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as All-American Roads or National Scenic Byways based on one or more archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.”

In other words, there’s a little part of the federal government that acknowledges nifty drives. Speaking now as someone who shares his income with the federal government, I think that’s a fine idea. However many pennies I pay into this program annually is worth it, if it results in purple lines on maps that direct me to excellent drives.

Certainly I got my money’s worth this year. Further investigation revealed that this particular purple line was the Loess Hills Scenic Byway. It’s a fairly long route, and my schedule didn’t allow me to drive it all. But I did manage a section of it, more about which tomorrow.


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