When we were dating in the early 1980s, my wife Beth and I used to meet in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, to spend Saturdays together. We lived in two different locations, and the small town was about halfway between us. With a mall, an art gallery, a decent downtown, and several antique stores, we could spend a nice day together.
State highways pass through Mt. Vernon, but I didn’t realize that a major highway, U.S. 460, had passed through town in years past. Today, 460 runs from Frankfort, KY to Norfolk, VA, but between 1946 and 1977, 460 began in downtown St. Louis, crossed the old MacArthur Bridge, and traveled across Illinois and Indiana into Louisville before proceeding, along U.S. 60, over to Frankfort and beyond. Here are two sites, http://www.us-highways.com/ and http://www.usends.com/60-69/460/460.html
I’ve traveled on the now-state highways that comprised this busy, pre-interstate road. The former route of 460 is Illinois 15 from East St. Louis to Mt. Vernon, south through Mt. Vernon on Illinois 37, then southeast on Illinois 142 to McLeansboro, east Illinois 14 to the Wabash River, and then Indiana 66 to Evansville and finally Indiana 62 across that state. Beautiful countryside! I’d also traveled a lot on U.S. 60 in Louisville, not realizing that this spur route had once also been signed along the same highway, en route to Frankfort. Pre-interstate, St. Louis-to-Louisville travelers must’ve taken U.S. 50 and U.S. 150, but travelers also had this more southerly route. I could imagine a traveler requiring much longer to drive 460 than the five or so hours upon the modern I-64, which supplanted the older road.
After Beth and I married, we eventually (and unintentionally) lived in three different communities associated with Interstate 64. Sixty-four is a 950 mile highway from Wentzville, MO near St. Louis, to Chesapeake, VA. The first place we lived Charlottesville, VA. When we moved from Illinois to Virginia in the mid 1980s, the highway was not finished through the mountains of West Virginia. Instead of making the long trip on I-79 south of Charleston, WV then up I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, we opted to take US 60 through WV, which on a map doesn’t look so long… Oh man, what a winding, mountain road! I think we spent over three hours going 90 miles.
I don’t remember much else about I-64 in Virginia, other than occasional trips to Richmond and other towns. The highway was very pretty just west of Charlottesville, near Ivy. Beth and I were doctoral students and we stayed pretty close to home, with noses firmly to grindstones. But later, during the 1990s, we lived in Louisville, KY. For several years, I-64 was my preferred route when I drove to see my elderly parents in Illinois. Throughout the decade, I went to see them every two or three months. They lived 260 miles away, and about 200 of that was the interstate through pretty, flat, rural countryside in southern Indiana and southeastern Illinois. Long stretches of the highway–for instance, the forty miles between Corydon and Ferdinand, IN, and the ninety miles between Mt. Vernon, IL and the US 41 exits near Evansville, IN–had few services.
I liked the countryside, though. I certainly became familiar to the scenery: the billboards, the fields, the small country neighborhoods, the rivers and streams. I took along tapes and CDs, mostly classical music, and some of this music still reminds me of southern Illinois and Indiana. Radio reception wasn’t great through those parts. If I liked country music better, I’d have had more choices. Evansville has a dandy classical NPR station that I could pick up for about sixty miles. During their pledge ride I sent them $20 out of gratitude.
Writing nostalgically about highway travel can be difficult if you’re writing about an interstate. What’s commendable about this field vs. that field, or about that exit vs. this? “Oh, this row of trees along a fence always fills me with an indefinable sense of peace. It’s the same kind of new-growth timber that I enjoy along this other interstate…And, wow, that’s a familiar billboard, for a store which closed a few years ago!” The comparative sameness of the four- or six-lane landscape doesn’t inspire sterling prose, unless you put your thoughts into an artificial first person: “Morning. Eastbound. The sun is in my eyes, but my heart is light. A robin sails across the hood of my Toyota and disappears into the bean field beyond the highway shoulder. The young white oaks will soon obscure my vision of the tiny town settled upon the far hill.”… The truth is, I like interstate scenery, but the fondness comes from repeated trips and thus familiarity, and also the personal memories of special drives such as Christmastime.
Funny things can happen on the road. Once, as I gassed up at a BP station, a DeLorean pulled up. That’s unusual, I thought. Then shortly another pulled up. That’s very strange. Then a third. Okay, what’s going on? It was a DeLorean car club, heading across southern Illinois.
Now, during the late 00s, we live in St. Louis, where I-64 has recently been in the process of upgrading. For several months, a major section of the interstate was completely closed, and people found alternate ways. The highway is reopened, though, and we’re easily able to drive to downtown St. Louis. Interestingly, local people don’t call it I-64, but rather Highway 40, since U.S. 40 joins the interstate through the city.
I still think of all those years I drove to see my parents. I figured, conservatively, that in those years I traveled the circumference of the world on I-64. Among interstates I tend to love I-70 the best, because it passes through my hometown and I remember when it was constructed. But I-64 has, by default, become one of my life’s major highways. Studying old maps to discover the earlier Route 460 has made me nostalgic recently for that area, truly “landscapes of the heart”. Perhaps I’ll take a couple days this summer or fall to reconnect memories and country vistas.