I spent last week visiting my son who lives in Minnesota. This time we drove across the mid-west to get there, something I had not done in 12 years.
During my driving life in getting across the country all I have ever known really is the interstate system. Its full capacity came into being (with a few exceptions) about the time I got my drivers license in the late 1960s. I never drove Highway 40 across the United States, nor the famed Route 66 either. And I certainly didn't take Highway 6 when I drove, except where I needed to. That of course changed when I moved to Carbon County 21 years ago. Now I take it regularly.
In 2001 I wrote a series of stories about Highway 6, documenting its original travel route from where it starts in Massachusetts to where it ends in Long Beach, Calif. Over the years much of the traffic on the highway has been taken away by the interstate system that either runs nearby it or has literally eaten up its route entirely.
Historically U.S. 6 is the longest continous highway in the United States with well over 2,000 miles of roadway. That has been cut down over the years with route designation changes and other incursions on the traditional route.
We in Carbon County tend to think of Highway 6 as our own. We also bemoan the problems the highway has, the largest of which are the number of deaths that have occurred on it over the years. Improvements in our local section of the highway in the past 10 years have really reduced the number of fatalities, but they still happen. We all believe even one is to many.
We also realize the highway is a lifeline to the outside world for us. It takes us to Salt Lake and Grand Junction, and points well beyond those towns.
But we are not the only ones that see the highway with a love/hate point of view. In my years of traveling for business in the 1990s I spent a lot of time going off the interstate for a change of scenery, and as I traveled I-80 a lot, U.S. 6 tended to be the default route for me. I learned a lot from the people on that highway as I drove it and stopped for fuel, to eat and to stay. Now that was a long time ago. But on Friday I did it again.
Tired of the long swooping hills of the interstate my wife and I drove Highway 6 about a third of the way between Des Moine and Council Bluffs, Iowa. We pulled off at Atlantic, Iowa and drove from there to Council Bluffs on the Missouri River.
While traveling I stopped for gas and to eat.
Atlantic is a town of about 7,000 people and serves as the county seat and economic center of Cass County. We stopped there and I watched as traffic backed up at lights on Highway 6. The street was very busy. Despite the interstate only a few miles away, it was obvious this was more than just local traffic. Gas stations were filled with cars and the fast food place we ate in was pretty busy.
I drove west out of town and it turned into rolling hills with a farm every half mile or so. We also passed through a number of small towns along the way as we travelled into Pottawattiamie County and on to Council Bluffs.
As we drove this road I imagined that it hadn't changed all that much since the 1950's before I-80 was built. Sure it has had improvements and some of the farms have come and gone, but I am sure it stilled looked similar. While traffic across our country has increased dramatically since then I know it wasn't handling what I-80 handles today in those days. Still, it must have been one busy road.
Not being on business along the way, I didn't seek out anyone who could remember those days before the interstate. Everyone I talked to was younger and had known nothing but being by passed by the interstate in their lifetimes.
Questions I asked myself were things like, had I-80 decimated the business districts of these small towns the way the by-pass did in Carbon County when it was constructed? Atlantic's downtown area looked pretty viable but there were a lot of empty stores too. That could have been a result of a big box store that opened on the east end of town a few years ago as much as it was due to the interstate.
Do people consider the highway a dangerous route to drive with improvement money mostly going to metropolitan areas in the state? I could see how some of the turns and hills on the road could cause safety problems. And as with every local road the locals who were on the highway with this slow poke tourist who traveled the 55 mph speed limit blew by me like I was standing still. While roads may not be as safely designed as they should be, motorists are the ones that cause accidents.
Do they have the love/hate relationship with their section of Highway 6 the way we do? That, I couldn't get an answer to. But I will say that I am sure based on the way the road is set up people have complaints. And even if I didn't get great response from those I asked about it on this trip, my prior trips on the old highway netted familiar tunes that I have heard over the years from those living along the route in places like New York and Indiana.
It's easy to think we are the only ones with a highway problem, but we aren't. The value of U.S. 6 and the problems associated with it seem universal.