About 20 years ago during a short stint in management here at the Voice of America, I sent a superb reporter named Bill Torrey on a journey that I longed to make myself. As it turns out, my photographer-wife Carol M. Highsmith and I would later retrace a good deal of his route, to our considerable delight.
Accompanied by two young geographers, Bill traveled the length of one of America’s great old U.S. highways. These are not the high-speed, multi-lane, numbingly monotonous Interstate superhighways on which we scoot across the country today. The U.S. highways are aging, mostly two-lane national roads that tied the country together soon after Americans got the itch to go exploring in our horseless driving machines.
A New Beaten Path
At the beginning of the last century, a web of “auto trails” criss-crossed the nation. They had names such as “Dixie Highway” and “Mohawk Trail,” chosen by civic boosters and driving enthusiasts. The Old Oregon Trail auto route, for instance, ran from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, roughly following the original Oregon Trail on which pioneers had walked and driven oxen teams westward almost a century before.
But sticking to these auto trails was no easy task for motorists. Crude signs and colored bands on telephone poles that were supposed to show the way were there one day, stolen or knocked over the next. If they weren’t careful, travelers would find themselves 50 kilometers down the wrong road.
So in 1925, the nation began the switch to numbered routes that were better marked and crossed state lines. The U.S. Government helped build them, tacked up thousands of shield-shaped signs with the highways’ numbers, and instituted modest standards of safety.
At last you wouldn’t need 20 different maps to get from Ocean City, Maryland, to Sacramento, California. Maybe just one newfangled “road map” put out by Pure or Esso or Gulf Oil. Or no map at all: you just got onto U.S. Route 50 and headed west.
Even-numbered national highways ran east-west – and of course, west to east as well! Odd-numbered ones cut north and south, just as Interstate highway numbers work today.
The ‘Highway That’s the Best’
You may have heard of, or even driven, our most-acclaimed national road: historic U.S. Route 66, which started in Chicago, zigged and zagged southwestward to Oklahoma, then slithered across the dusty West before ending abruptly at the Santa Monica, California, pier on the Pacific Ocean. Crusty tales, evocative photographs, and snappy songs such as “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” still celebrate Route 66, which its devotees call “The Mother Road.”
Backers of famous named roads such as the Lincoln Highway, which wended from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Astoria, Oregon, 4,900 kilometers away, grudgingly gave in to the numbering system. You still see commemorative Lincoln Highway signs in Pennsylvania, especially, but the road officially became and remains “U.S. 30” on maps and markers.
Border to Border (Almost)
Bill Torrey and his companions did not follow any of the roads I have mentioned. They ventured north to south, down a more obscure and meandering national road.
It’s U.S. 11, which begins in upper New York State at the edge of Lake Champlain, just below Montreal, Canada, wiggles southward 1,700 kilometers down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and cuts through Deep South bottomlands to an ignominious end just outside New Orleans, Louisiana.
Why ignominious? You’d expect a haughty national highway to extend all the way into New Orleans and conclude triumphantly in or near that city’s fabulous French Quarter. Instead, Old 11 dead ends at a merge point with another national road, way across a lake, in the eastern part of the city.
Metaphorically, though, Route 11 does connect French Canada with French Louisiana, even though not much of New Orleans except its rich, saucy cooking is French any more. The architecture in the French Quarter is Spanish.
Still, I call U.S. 11, “The French Connection,” borrowing the name from a famous Gene Hackman movie.
Swell for Scenery, Not Speed
The old national highways were narrow, winding, and often punctuated by treacherous cross traffic from lesser roads. All the national roads led drivers right through cities and towns, past radar “speed traps” in which sneaky constables hid on their motorcycles behind billboards, waiting to chase down and ticket drivers who didn’t slow to a crawl as they drove through town.
Business leaders wouldn’t hear of diverting traffic around town on bypasses. Little motor courts, “greasy spoon” restaurants, souvenir stands, and independent repair shops beckoned in every little town. So did elaborate neon-gas advertising signs, which had been introduced in the United States at a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles in 1923.
And out in the country, roadside attractions – many of them “tourist traps” such as snake farms, pseudo-scientific fossil collections, and spooky caverns – lured tourists off the national roads.
Stretch Your Legs a Spell
The early lures of the national roads bore little resemblance to today’s outlet shopping malls, fast-food chains, gargantuan theme parks, and capacious motels with pools, workout rooms, and mints under your pillow.
Some of the tourist cabins were barely wider, and no more comfortable, than your car.
But every stop along the old roads could bring adventure. Carol remembers annual trips from her home in Minnesota to her granny’s North Carolina farm. Every year, it seemed, the old family car would break down on U.S. 52, deep in the West Virginia hills. Carol, her mom, and her sister Sara would be stuck for several days and nights in a dingy rented room above the repair shop, waiting for the right part to be trucked in.
Because it missed all of America’s really big metro centers, U.S. 11 never got the attention that the coast-to-coast roads attracted. Besides New Orleans, 11’s only cities of note are Birmingham, Alabama; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; Roanoke, Virginia; Harrisburg and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Syracuse in New York State.
Route 11 was no Mother Road – not even a Little Brother or Sister road. It was a workaday Canada-to-Gulf of Mexico route, often choked with trucks, a road that drivers took for granted, then pretty much deserted once Interstate highways opened along its path.
Y’all Come – Right Through Town
I remember crawling along Route 11 through Birmingham. Before the Interstate super roads were completed, our family often traveled between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
Each time we drove through Birmingham, the shimmering Alabama heat and dripping humidity overwhelmed our VW Beetle’s pitiful air conditioning. But we weren’t eager to roll down the windows. Route 11 may have been bird-chirpy bucolic in the countryside, but no tourist brochure would ever tout the tough, shabby in-town neighborhoods through which the highway ran.
A few years ago, Carol and I drove along 1st Ave. North, which carries U.S. 11 through the heart of Birmingham. We were off to photograph the defunct, eerily silent Sloss Furnaces.
This was once a bustling iron-mill complex whose web of pipes and blast furnaces turned out more than 400 tons of pig iron each day. You see, Birmingham was once the vibrant “Pittsburgh of the South” – a gritty city of steel and bright-red iron, forged from ore pulled from the Red Mountain Ridge near town. Today the rusted, vivid-red ironworks are a national landmark and a City of Birmingham museum.
In the Interstate’s Shadow
In the countryside, monster Interstates have obliterated much of Old 11, plowing it under and paving it over. In Virginia, for instance, you tool along on Route 11 through dots of towns such as Glenvar and Chilhowie, only to be shunted up onto I-81. Then the very next Interstate exit will drop you back down onto 11 again. The old road wraps around the superhighway like a snake on a beanpole.
After businesses, developers, and most drivers deserted the tired old roads, the action shifted to Interstate highway interchanges. These days on the national roads, sad remnants of better days appear around every turn: sagging barns, long-shuttered restaurants, busted-up gas stations, chunks of old drive-in theaters, faded historical markers of little-known battles and people, and obscure museums where there’s not likely to be a wait to get in. On Old 11, you’ll find museums dedicated to handweaving, American presidents, steam trains, even the legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
You don’t have to drive and drive and drive some more to an exit if you want to take a photograph on Route 11. Just pull off the road the moment you feel like it. Later, you can file your shots under “authentic Americana.”
Lots to See, If You’re Into Old
On their U.S. 11 excursion, Bill Torrey and his companions found deserted forts and military gravesites dating to the French and Indian War of the middle 1700s;  sturdy covered bridges; the Erie Canal, which tied the mighty Great Lakes to New York’s Hudson River; a crossing of the Appalachian Trail, the world’s longest footpath; what’s left of burley tobacco barns; roadside stands still selling fireworks; twirling, tinkly carousels; rows of factories in “America’s Sock Capital” of Fort Payne, Alabama; and that final, forlorn end point on the edge of New Orleans.
Their journey took 12 days.
Roads of Wood Not So Good
Years later, Carol and I enjoyed a stop on a stretch of Old 11 in central New York State, just above Syracuse. It had been the nation’s first plank road, made of squared wooden logs laid side to side.
The folks who built it in 1846 figured anything was better than rutted mud. Wagons could rumble so expeditiously on the plank road that its investors set up tollbooths to charge teamsters for the privilege. But travelers soon found that rain rotted the timbers, steel horseshoes and laden wagons beat the wood to splinters, and spillage from one of the prime local cargoes – salt, mined in swamps outside Syracuse – didn’t do the wood much good, either.
So boom turned to bust on the plank road. Today, there’s a dandy little outdoor museum  of artifacts, including a tollhouse, in the village of North Syracuse that recalls the road’s brief heyday.
“It is a melancholy route,” Bill Torrey wrote of Route 11 in 1990. “For long stretches, it connects one abandoned, derelict, deserted, forsaken, shabby, commercially comatose downtown to another, and in between are fields gone to weed.”
Years later, when Bill worked in the college town of Ithaca, N.Y. – one of the few economically healthy communities on the northern part of Route 11 – he found that nothing much had changed from the days of his adventure on the old road.
Seen Better Days
Nor did Carol and I. If anything, more of Route 11 and its surroundings had become part of what Carol calls “Disappearing America.”
In Appalachia and much of the South, Old 11 has pretty much gone to “rack and ruin.” Technology passed it by. Farms played out. Once-viable businesses were abandoned to the vandals and graffiti artists. Like stretches of other national highways, Route 11 slid out of our daily lives.
Still, just as there’s poignant dignity to be found in a rouged gray lady, there are fragile and decaying reminders of unhurried times to be savored on Old U.S. 11. Its accents are French-ified up top, Yankee-clipped in the rest of New York and Pennsylvania, twangy-hard along the mountain ridges, and drawly-slow down South.
Smells range from crabapple to road apple – the latter being a term you should research.
Sights turn from soot to rot to rust, sounds from crickets to the clatter of a broken barn door banging in the wind.
Some folks along the old road still wear suspenders and ruffled dresses for square dancing. Sure, over those 1,700 kilometers of Route 11 you’ll get your fill of used-car dealers, railroad slag piles, overgrown corn cribs, dark and beery taverns, and shuffling old-timers.
But for some of us, there’s nostalgic charm to it all, a fast-unraveling thread to our past, and a feast for the eye and lens and pen.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Burley. A light-colored, relatively mild tobacco, lower in nicotine than darker varieties. Burley tobacco is grown extensively in the mid-South state of Kentucky. Not to be confused with burly, which is an adjective describing men, primarily, who are brawny and strong. Burly lumberjacks often smoke burley cigarettes.
Grudgingly. Extremely reluctantly. Going along with what’s asked of you, but with zero enthusiasm.
Ignominious. Shameful, disgraceful. Ignominy comes from the Latin, meaning “without a name.” Ignominious behavior brings one great discredit. Ignominious places are lowly, ruder or humbler than what might be expected.
Luminaries. Prominent people or stars. Big shots. The bright lights, or luminescence, shine on these famous people.