Ode To The Open Road

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Photo by Debbie Schiel from FreeImagesIn the minds of many, the fast-approaching Labor Day represents the metaphorical end of summer. Before we take that literary leap, however, let’s spend one final weekend basking in the glory of the sun and the freedom of endless fields of rolling hills, chirping nature, and fragrant wild flowers.

There’s more to it than that, though.

From the beginning of our lives, we’ve come to see summer as a 10-week break. It starts with the calendar of school. Out in June. Back in September. July and August became the carefree times filled with sandlot games, spontaneous treks deep into the woods, and warm muggy nights beneath the stars.

It didn’t matter how late we stayed up because we knew we could always sleep in the next day.

As we got older, despite leaving those scholastic halls, we couldn’t help but look forward to the return of summer each year. Work naturally eased. We took time off for vacation. And, more often than not, those vacations weren’t extensive (or expensive) journeys to distant lands. Instead, we sought drivable destinations.

Here’s the funny thing. It wasn’t about the destination. It was about the drive. The freedom of the open road. Windows rolled down. T-Tops off. All eight cylinders roaring in perfect harmony.

Did you ever feel the need for speed? This is how we captured that feeling.

It’s the quintessential American experience. Perhaps you might call it the ultimate manifestation of the American Dream.

It is the individual unbound. It is the stuff of the Great American Novel. You find it in nearly every classic American film. Nothing exemplifies it more than American Rock & Roll (as opposed to the British Invasion) as sung by The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and any number of 1950s tunes glorifying the hot rod.

Before we get a little too far ahead of ourselves, remember how those old western movies always ended. The lonesome cowboys always rode off into the sunset on the far away horizon. (Granted, sometimes he wasn’t so lonesome and rode off with the damsel he had just rescued, but you get the idea.)

The wagon trails of yesteryear would hardly be considered roads today. But they served the same purpose. The true national highway system didn’t begin until November 11, 1926, when Congress approved the U.S. Highway System. Incidentally, the famous “Route 66” was designated on April 30, 1926, before the U.S. Highway System was approved. It became “U.S. Route 66” the following year. Locally, Route 15 or Routes 5&20 (a.k.a. “The Genesee Road”) represent examples of roads in our region that fall under the auspices of the U.S. Highway System.

You may be more familiar with the Interstate Highway System (whose real name is “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”). The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 put the U.S. Highway System on steroids. Unlike its predecessor, the Interstate Highway System didn’t rely on existing roads. One of the exceptions to this is the New York State Thruway. Completed in 1955, it was incorporated into the Interstate Highway System to become part of I-90.

Whether part of the U.S. Highway System or the Interstate Highway System, you’ve seen enough car commercials filmed on the open roads in the barren west to get that sensation of freedom.

Picture yourself before you earned your driver’s license. What did you imagine it would feel like to be behind the wheel for the first time? Were you frightened? Were you excited? Were you empowered?

Perhaps it was a little of all these things.

Think about what it means to be an American. The kind of American our Founding Fathers saw when they first crafted our country.

America, as they envisioned it, championed the individual. In school you may have been taught that they focused on “inalienable rights,” but this is a bit misleading. It wasn’t about the rights. It was about the individual. Each of us had the natural right to do what we wanted, without interference from anyone else, including this somewhat artificial construct we call “government.”

Now, before you jump to the conclusion our Founding Fathers were mindless anarchists, they weren’t. The failure of the Articles of Confederation made it all too apparent that a land of free agents would not last long. They realized a contract outlining commonalities was needed to ensure their new country would endure. That contract would be limited in scope and focus only on the most necessary things that require collective agreement. Anything else would remain within the individual’s sole right to exercise.

That contract became the Constitution of the United States.

Very quickly, one common need emerged. At first, this wasn’t a national need, but it was an individual state need.

There was a need for roads.

States, particularly those with uninhabited western regions, wanted to encourage settlement into their frontier lands. You need look no further than New York State as an example of this. They needed something more than the Indian trails they inherited. These would become more than the muddy wagon trails that would line the west a century later.

These new roads, after some effect, would become “Macadamized,” that is, they would be layered with crush stone. Settlers would travel these roads through the forests and fields of the Greater Western New York Region. They were enjoying the new-found freedom America had recently granted them.

As they traveled the open road of America’s First Frontier, they could see the endless rolling hills, they could hear the blissful sounds of the virgin forest, and they could breathe in the sweet smell of the wildflower fields surrounding them.

Archer Butler Hulbert, in Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers (Volume II), (The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1904), wrote, “The old Genesee Road passed through as romantic and beautiful a land as heart could wish to see or know.”

The romance and beauty remains. You can still experience it. So take the advice of Mike Love of the Beach Boys and channel the “whole other vibe” of “Endless Summer.”

The Summer is endless if you choose it to be. So, too, is the open road.

Don’t let the calendar stop you. Enjoy the endless road.

At least until football season begins in earnest.

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