When I was sixteen, I developed a passion for a yellow Lincoln Continental convertible with a black leather interior. Not a Corvette, which was the hot car of my youth (why, yes, I did watch Route 66), or one of the adorable tiny English sports cars of the ’60s. A Lincoln Continental, the ultimate land yacht.
In my dreams, I would have this car by my mid-20s, when I’d be living in Kemah, Texas (on Galveston Bay), and working at some job or another (the details of employment were not part of this fantasy, though it must have been well-paid). I would also have a shrimp boat, though I wouldn’t be working shrimper.
Why a shrimp boat, you may ask? Possibly because I really, really liked (and like) to eat shrimp. But also because it wasn’t the sort of boat the wealthy acquired. That is, I wanted a rich person’s car, but a working person’s boat.
It should go without saying that I never achieved this dream. In my mid-20s I was finishing law school and pretty much broke. The car I did have – a Plymouth Valiant – had bit the dust and I was commuting around Austin by bicycle.
Even if I’d had the money, I didn’t want that car or that lifestyle by that time. Kemah was no longer a sleepy bay town but a bustling suburb and I had developed my life-long allergy to commuting. And I had other dreams, few of which involved cars.
These days, I usually get around by a combination of walking and public transportation. I still have a car, but I mostly use it to get out of town. When the wind is out of the west, I can hear the highway at night. I hate the sound. I am beginning to hate cars.
But I am a child of the Twentieth Century and that was the time of the automobile. I learned to drive at fourteen. Over my lifetime I’ve bought five cars and had two given to me by my parents. I’ve driven all the way across the US twice and halfway across it multiple times and traveled by car in all 48 of the contiguous states.
My great-grandmothers didn’t drive, but both my grandmothers – born about the same time as the automobile – did. My father drove his entire life on a license he got at the age of fourteen, before there were driving tests to pass. He was still a good driver in his 90s when I had to take his car away because his memory was going. (He could remember how to drive safely, but not how to get where he was going.)
Here in the United States we have a vast network of highways. But a story from my father’s childhood illustrates how fast that network came together.
When he was about five – which was less than a hundred years ago – he traveled with his parents in a Model A Ford from West Texas to Southern California on an often unpaved road across New Mexico and Arizona. Much of this road was what became the fabled Route 66 and what is now Interstate 40, but back then it was two lanes (or maybe just one) and went through the small western towns (some of which are now large cities).
Somewhere in the middle of Arizona, they met another car and stopped to chat. Turned out the folks in the other car had been in California and were traveling back to Texas. They exchanged news while stopped in the middle of what is now I-40.
Think about that for a minute. In the early1920s, you could stop in the middle of the road and chat on what is now a very busy interstate. By the end of that decade, just a few years later, that time was gone.
In the Twentieth Century, we built highways very quickly to go along with the car culture. These days, we don’t seem to be keeping up with the maintenance or the building: no matter how many roads we have, they’re never enough and they’re all full of potholes.
And we’ve built a lot of monstrosities, like the interstates that cut through Oakland and divide up neighborhoods. I’m sure everyone can name stretches of highway that they hate with unbridled passion. (My personal list, off the top of my head: all the freeways in Oakland, I-35 from San Antonio to Oklahoma City, I-95 from Maine to Florida.)
But there are roads I like. One of my favorite stretches is across Wyoming from Sheridan to Yellowstone Park on Alternate Highway 14, which I think is closed in winter. It’s a sharp climb into the Bighorn Mountains (which have a number of peaks in the 12,000 foot range and a couple over 13,000). There’s an overlook near a national forest campsite where you can see what was once a vast inland sea.
Standing there about twenty years ago, trying to think in geological terms, I found myself instead realizing how fast we humans had changed the landscape of this country in the Twentieth Century to accommodate the automobile.
Much as I hate driving in traffic or searching for the elusive parking place in urban areas, there are lots of places I want to go that are only accessible by car. I’m not planning to give up my trusty Scion xB this week.
But I suspect that by the end of the Twenty-First Century, the car and much of its infrastructure will be obsolete. We have remade our world for a mode of transportation that will disappear almost as fast as it came along.
How long will it take the Earth to recover from that?