To know America, one has to understand how people have built their lives around the road, the access it provides and the activities it stimulates….The best place to search for the archetypal road that will illustrate how life becomes landscape is an old road — not a simple track, abandoned and backwatered, but a road with purpose, a road built in the context of nation building, a road that would become a key part of the national highway network. That road is the National Road.
-Karl Raitz, A Guide to the National Road
This is how the author of my National Road guidebook introduces the allure of traveling the Chesapeake-to-Mississippi route that became US 40, but for me, this route represents a key not only to knowing America, but to knowing myself.
When people ask, “Where are you from?” I often stumble a beat as the possible answers flash through my mind: Denver, Colorado, where I was born? St. Louis, Missouri, where I spent most of my childhood? Ellicott City, Maryland, where I came of age? Hagerstown, Maryland, where I first lived on my own after college? Frederick, Maryland, where I live now? I feel a connection to each one of these places, but there is a thread that runs through all of them: US 40.
Yet despite living within a few miles of US 40 in nearly every place I have ever called home, these individual sections have never felt connected in my mind. Traveling between them today, you hop on the Interstate, a sort of magic portal, and hop off somewhere else, transported. But this is not the only way: If you’re willing to drive a little slower, to mosey through downtowns and stop lights, to wind around twists and turns that were unsuited for the path of a freeway, you can still travel much of the route of the old National Road.
So when my family received an invitation a few months ago to attend my cousin’s wedding in Kansas and we began talking about incorporating the wedding into a road trip that would include returning to St. Louis and Denver as a family for the first time since moving away 20 years ago, I threw out what I knew could be a controversial idea: To take what would already be 50 hours worth of driving and draw it out even longer by following, as closely as we can, the route of US 40 and its predecessors wherever they diverge from I-70.
Whether or not we stick to that resolution, I know the experience of tracing the ribbon of my life back to the place of my birth will be an unforgettable experience, and I invite you to follow along with me here as I blog about our adventures in Prius camping, visiting quirky roadside landmarks, returning with my mother to her childhood home and more.
The journey starts Saturday, June 15.
- Route 40 festival marked with nostalgia (observer-reporter.com)
- 40th National Road Heritage Festival planned this year (andrewjhesner.com)