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Interstate Love Song
This is a newsletter about the interstate. I live in a 1978 townhouse nestled among many other ‘70s-era housing developments over here on the Northside of Missoula. Sunken living room, stackable washer/dryer retroactively installed into the downstairs coat closet, *original* stove hood and all. Not far from my house, but well above it, cut into the side of the North Hills, runs I-90. From where I sit on my couch typing this, I can see it through the glass of my storm door: semis and cars fast on their way to somewhere. I have a lot of thoughts about the interstate and the traffic on it. But mainly, I think of I-90 as my interstate.
As a child I moved from Virginia to California and back, twice. Across those moves, I drove with my mother three times. Once on I-10, twice on I-40. Back in the ‘80s we used folding paper maps, and you could also order these things from AAA called TripTiks. You’d tell AAA where you wanted to go and give them a timeline, and they’d measure out your trip for you and produce a…never mind, it’s so hard to explain. Here’s a photo I shamelessly stole off the internet. Each day’s drive showed up on one of the long skinny pages with the spiral at the top for easy flipping and reference.
Evidently AAA still makes TripTiks, maybe in app style? I don’t know. What I remember is spending interminable hours in the backseat looking at the maps. Figuring out how long it would take to get from one place to another. Doing the math in my head: If we’re driving 62 mphand we have 154 miles to go… Another thing I did in my head was memorize all the states in alphabetical order without writing anything down, then recite them. And their capitals. I could still do this well into my 20s because of the hours of practice in the backseat.
Regular fold-out maps are fantastic learning tools too and even more fun to read than a dictionary. Deciphering the legend, learning what the tiny red arrows and numbers mean, determining the size of a town based on the size of the font that appears on the map, that kind of thing. And the endless math calculations. My mom and I made dime bets on the hour and minute we would pull into the hotel parking lot, always a Best Western. (Why?)
I also learned how the highway system is set up, interstates anyway: the even-numbered ones go E-W and start at the lowest number along the southernmost edge of the country – I-10 runs through El Paso, for example – to I-90, which snakes along, two tenths of a mile from my living room up here in the frozen North. Odd-numbered interstates go N-S. The Five, what Californians love to call I-5, runs from San Diego up through Seattle, while I-95 has carried me on innumerable trips up and down the East Coast. Maybe you already knew this mapping, but what if you didn’t? Good facts!
Many other long road trips come to mind, too: DC to Florida to New Orleans and back; DC to Maine and back; DC to South Dakota and back; San Francisco to Montana…to stay. I wish I had a giant map of everything to mark where I’ve been and add photos and notes. I bet there’s an app…
But that’s all memories of moving along the blacktop myself, going somewhere. Here, I am stationary. I am the rock being passed by the stream. From my house, I can both see and hear the traffic. What fascinates me is what I might deduce about human nature based on traffic patterns. Which are the busiest times of day, and what days of the week, up there on the highway, and is that related to typical work schedules, bars closing, football games, and other predictable events?Are there days or times when semis roll by more frequently than others and is that related to laws governing their road time? Do the birds care about the noise?
In the winter, I can tell the road conditions by watching how slowly the traffic is crawling up there. I can often see the green flashers on the snowplows creating domes of blinking light that refract through the snowplow cloud. Sometimes it’s so slick the semis have their hazards on, and I can see that, too. Springtime with rain, cloud wakes follow trucks as their tires hash droplets off the pavement into a wet miasma.
At night, I can sometimes guess the weather by how the engines sound, how loud they are against a low or thick cloud cover vs. open sky, and how much wet tire noise there seems to be. I’m not expert at this yet. I also spend a lot of time pondering what exactly makes the sounds I hear. I know there’s engine noise, but also…wind against a grill? Wheels whipping the pavement? Words I use to describe those sounds: whirr-whine, air-howl, growl-breath. I also hear grating air brakes, flapping tarp corners, tires thripping along on rumble strips.
The other night I woke up at 2 am because it was raining, so I recorded that, and got a couple of vehicles in the mix too, a car at :16 and a truck at :40. It’s all rather soothing.
One of my favorite college-era movies was Singles, with its fantastic soundtrack and lots of great actors not much older than me, living the young adult life I coveted. In this film, Matt Dillon’s character is dating Bridget Fonda’s character. He’s kind of a jerk, so she breaks up with him. He tries to get her back by describing how he used to live by the airport, and it was so noisy nobody would come to his cookouts, but then he moved and he missed the noise. Then he tells her that he misses her. She’s the noise. And I wonder, if I moved from my disco-era townhouse, would I miss my interstate and its noise?
Don’t miss Interstate Love Song by Stone Temple Pilots. So good.
just kidding, my mom never drove that slow
Answer: Monday morning, followed by Tuesday morning, in this pattern through Sunday, the quietest morning. But Sunday is also the day they heave railcars together over at the railyard, and that’s an extremely loud activity.
They don’t seem to. And that’s not a human nature question. I’m just interested.