Lost Heart of the Interstates

When a reporter and photographer drove Route 1 recently, they discovered whatan interstate highway used to be: a road with character, humanity, spirit, and some crucial problems - just like the United States.

GEOGRAPHICALLY speaking, with the exception of a desert or volcano, Route 1 has nearly everything.You'll find warm beaches, coral reefs, and islands in Florida; mountains, coves, and wilderness in Maine; rivers galore in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; vast farmland in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas; even the southern-most point in the United States (Key West). And Route 1 runs close to the eastern-most point in the US (Eastport, Maine). Somewhere - in New Hampshire, I think - there is even a modest waterfall by the side of the road. On the other hand, the part of Route 1 in New Jersey is one of the worst urban nightmares in the US. Driving north toward Newark, four or five miles before Route 1 goes over the befouled Passaic River, the highway is four narrow lanes careening through an industrial landscape thickly jammed with the cacophony of cars and trucks. Separating the north and south traffic are scarred cement dividers. Chain-link and barbed-wire fences line much of the road. Telephone poles and mazes of power lines hang overhead; behind the fences are wrecking yards, used-car lots, windowless plumbing supply houses, and stone monument companies. Weeds and debris are everywhere. Empty lots are scattered with junk, walls are covered with graffiti. Motels, some renting rooms by the hour, are mixed in with fast-food restaurants. In the distance are the smo ke stacks of chemical plants. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency identified this northern New Jersey area (along with an adjacent part of New York State) as exceeding maximum allowable levels of ozone. Politically speaking, Route 1 bubbles with issues. In small Hancock, Maine, a town meeting grappled with the question of whether the state should repave three miles of Route 1. Should four 100-year-old trees at the side of the road be removed to ensure a safer intersection near the community school? The town wasn't sure. The state temporarily backed off. In Key West, Fla., City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley wanted a new ordinance to ban the use of neon lights on the fronts of businesses. He called the lights "tacky" and said they detracted from the historical significance of downtown Key West. Passage appeared unlikely. In an editorial, the Key West Citizen said, "Vagrants passed out on the sidewalks are a greater detriment to the area than bright neon lights." Standing in his peanut field next to Route 1 in rural Lyons, Ga., farmer R.T. Stanley worried about the drug problem he faces far away from inner cities. "Even here we've got drugs," he said. "Some of my workers show up on drugs, and if I know them fairly well, I'll send them home. If not, that's it; they're gone. Drugs are hurting this country more than anything else." In Florida, many people want to save manatees from being struck by speedboat propellers. Others are concerned about protecting Florida's fragile coral reefs. Anyone can "adopt" a sea turtle and save it from poachers. In New Hampshire, moose and car collisions on Route 1 and other highways have reached 170 this year, an all-time high. A leaflet circulated by the state reminds drivers that moose are six feet tall at the shoulder. Be alert, says the leaflet: Headlights at night shine through moose legs, which are the same color as the pavement. Leaning back in his chair, Valene Bennett, a banker in Alma, Ga., reflected on the local economy of tobacco, pulpwoods, and sawmills. 'WE would like to be making more loans," he said, "but the demand is very low now. T'S a slow economy even with the timber business doing well." For Freddy Gardner, the editor and publisher of the Alma (Ga.) Times-Statesman, the sign of a bad economy was clear. "Collecting payments for the newspaper ads has become a problem for us," he said. But in the same breath, he said why Alma is home. "I wouldn't want my three boys to be raised anywhere else." Yet in Caribou, Maine, people are leaving. "We're going to lose a lot of people when the Air Force base here is closed," said Chief of Police Robert E. Long. "A lot of people are moving to get work, and older people are coming in to retire. But if Boeing or some other big company comes in," Chief Long said, "the population will rise again."

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