Ginger Strand is a contributing editor of Orion and the author, most recently, of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. The book explores the history of the U.S. highway system—how it was built, how it shaped society, and how we came to equate it with violence—and the “highway killers,” both real and imagined, that developed along with it. We asked Ginger how researching the book, out today from University of Texas Press, changed her perceptions of the interstate system.
While working on my new book Killer on the Road, I nearly killed myself on the road. Ironically, I had just finished ten days of researching the origins of the interstate at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. The day I was scheduled to fly home, an epic blizzard hit the state, the kind only Kansas can whip up. I decided to go to the airport, even though I-70 was unplowed and nearly deserted. Outside Kansas City, foolishly trying to make my departure time—as if my flight would be leaving on time!—I hit a stretch of black ice. I was spinning as my car left the road. Since all I had been thinking about for months was highways, I knew the stats: once your vehicle leaves the interstate, you have a 30 percent chance of ending up dead.
But I didn’t, and the reason was the decades of design expertise that have gone into constructing our interstates. The concave median kept my car from crossing into oncoming traffic, the setback standards meant there were no obstacles for me to hit, and the soft mud of the median dragged me to a heart-thumping, grateful stop. My airbag didn’t even inflate. The interstate had just saved my life.
It was a chastening moment for me, and not just because I had blown all chances of making my flight. I came to my project with a distaste for all things highway. Like most Americans who grew up with them, I always had a vague sense that the interstates were ugly and dangerous, if not downright violent. Hitchhiking was considered a shockingly dangerous thing that no one in her right mind would do anymore. Rest areas were dodgy places that should never be entered alone. You gave trucks a wide berth and avoided eye contact with other drivers. In cities, you locked your doors against carjackers. The TV news backed up these fears by unspooling endless accounts of drive-by shootings, rest-area prostitution rings, women vanishing from truck stops, bodies in right-of-ways.
In college, I began to learn about some of the more abstract forms of violence the highway system visited on the nation: the landscapes carved up, farms and homes bisected, parks mowed down, waterfronts paved. I read about the urban blight caused when highways rammed through cities, the million citizens displaced, the communities destroyed. I learned how many of the urban riots of the late 1960s were sparked by the racial politics of highway construction, summed up as “white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms.” Researching the book, I learned about the twenty-two nuclear bombs California’s highway engineers had planned to drop on the Bristol Mountains to clear the way for I-40, and I thought, “That’s what the highways are: war on nature.”
But that’s not the end of the story, and as I sat shaking in the muddy median outside Kansas City, I realized there was another side to the highways that had to be part of it. There were, as I had so viscerally experienced, the safety improvements that had made our interstates some of the world’s safest roads. But there were other things too: the car ads of the 1960s showing interstates as glorious gateways to a better life. There were the speeches and pamphlets outlining the utopian promise of highways: economic growth, social mobility, the spread of ideas. And there was the simple allure of the open road: the invitation to go where you want and be the person you’ve always wanted to be. I knew that allure well—growing up in rural Michigan, I considered the interstate an asphalt ticket to a better life. When I left home to attend school in the East, I took I-94 to I-90 to I-80, the mile markers tallying my progress toward the more sophisticated, more intellectual me I had always thought was trapped in a farm girl’s body.
So even as I wrote a book about highways and the serial killers who haunted them, using the stories and myths of murderous outlaws to tease out the connections between highways and violence, I realized I had to stay attuned to the dream of the highway too. Because nothing is ever as simple as it might seem. Sometimes it takes a good hard jolt—or a headlong, terrifying spin through the Missouri mud—to remind us to honor the complexity of the world.
Ginger Strand’s latest article for Orion, “Speed Freaks,” appeared in the September/October 2011 issue. She lives in New York.