Infrastructure, circa 1962

Troutdale - Dodson 1957 Columbia River HwyThere’s been a lot in the news in recent years about infrastructure. Which projects are “shovel ready”? Which will create more jobs? How do we bring our aging roads and bridges into the twenty-first century?

When I hear about infrastructure, I think of the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was a child living in the Pacific Northwest in those years, and my family traveled regularly between our home in Eastern Washington and the larger cities of Seattle and Portland. The old highway to Seattle meandered through the Cascade Mountains, and the Portland route took us through the Columbia River Gorge. Both routes were under construction for my entire childhood, it seemed, as I-80 to Seattle and I-84 to Portland replaced the older roads.

My earliest memories of these trips are of the two-lane highways that crept through one small town after another. We only stopped in those towns if the car needed gas. My father’s philosophy was that our bladders needed to be as big as the gas tank. We left home before dawn and arrived at our destination by early afternoon—no need to pay for a meal on the road.

The routes to both Seattle and Portland were scenic, though those pre-interstate roads included some hazards. The mountain highway twisted and turned as it climbed to the passes, with huge drop-offs next to flimsy guardrails. Every so often, a guardrail would be missing, and I would wonder what had happened. Rushing mountain streams ran at the bottom of those drop-offs. We might see patchy snow any month of the year, but in the winter when the roads were covered with snow and ice, we had to stop at a turn-off near the pass so my father could put chains on the tires.

The river route couldn’t deviate far from the Columbia because of high bluffs rising near the banks, but this road offered views of dams and tunnels and waterfalls. My brother and I used to count the waterfalls—in spring there were well over thirty cataracts spewing over the high cliffs down toward the road. Some were mere trickles, but some were real gushers. We agreed not to count the spots where the cliffs were simply wet and no water flowed.

ellensburg_cleelum-postcard-1940s

Between Ellensburg and Cle Elum in Washington. Postcard from the 1940s, but not much changed by  1960.

When the interstate construction began, the length of our trips doubled. Every few miles, we stopped in interminably long lines of cars. Our family sedan was not air-conditioned, and in the summer we baked in the heat, with dust from the jackhammers wafting into the vehicle through open windows. My brother and I sat in the back, bored and cranky. I tried not to fight with him, but what was I supposed to do when he encroached on my half of the bench seat? I couldn’t read in the car without getting nauseated, but during those tedious waits, I pulled out my book. Then we would start up again, and I’d have to put it away.

When we finally reached the head of the line and passed the construction worker with the flag, my father gave a jaunty salute, and the man in the hard hat nodded.

Only as I neared my teens was the interstate completed, and the trip became easier. The scenery was still lovely—we still counted waterfalls and held our breath through tunnels. And we still had to put on chains in the winter. But no more long lines of cars.

Now, fifty years later, so many of our roads need repairs. I live in Missouri now, and the state of I-70 is a frequent topic of conversation. I agree we need another infrastructure push, but I don’t look forward to the jackhammers and delays.

What do you remember about childhood road trips?

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