Quick: Who built the interstate highway system? If you answered President Eisenhower, then you’re not even half-right, writes Swift (The Tangierman’s Lament: and Other Tales of Virginia, 2007, etc.).
The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it’s formally known, was inaugurated during the Eisenhower years, of course, when the lessons of Hitler’s autobahn system, able to bring troops here and evacuate citizens there, were fresh in mind for those now engaged in the Cold War. Yet, writes the author, “Franklin Roosevelt had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower,” and even the ignoble Warren G. Harding and the hapless Herbert Hoover moved it along. But Swift reserves much of his account for men—almost always men—we’ve never heard of, most born in the days of horse and buggy or bicycle and enthralled by the possibilities of getting from one coast to the other in days if not weeks rather than months. One of his heroes, for instance, spent his early years contemplating how his native state of Iowa came to a halt during the thaw, when erstwhile dusty and then snow-covered roads turned into a thick mud the locals called “gumbo.” And then, of course, there is legendary terraformer Robert Moses, well studied in the literature, to whom Swift imparts a huffy malevolence that a Caesar would have admired. A little of this goes a long way, though, and Swift too often bogs down in the minutiae of admittedly fascinating stuff—fascinating, that is, if you’re a fan of the Wolfgang Schivelbusch school of how-things-came-to-be history, an acquired taste. The best parts of the book come when Swift injects Blue Highways notes into the enterprise and prefers the personal to the textbook-ready, as when he relates a cross-country trip with a preteen daughter and her friend that went better when they left the tranquil back roads and joined the flow: “On the old Lincoln, we’d tooled along. On U.S. 30, we toured. On I-80, folks were hauling ass.”
Despite occasional stalls along the narrative path, the book is a road geek’s treasure—and everyone who travels the highways ought to know these stories.