I enjoy easy, laid-back rides on days when there’s nothing pressing on the calendar. Actually, that’s most days now.
Taking a recent leisurely afternoon ride on Highway 30 between Ames and Boone, I encountered very little traffic in either direction. With few cars on the road, I was able to think back about the history of that particular road, how U.S. Highway 30 was the first road that reached east to west across America.
Before paved roads became the norm in America, they began as what could only be described as dirt paths. Highway 30, perhaps a hundred years ago, or so, may have stretched from coast to coast, but few cars were designed for that rigorous a trip. Historic photos of Highway 30 show motorists, stuck up to axles in mud as they tried to get from one point to another.
I obtained my first driver’s license in 1959 – it was hard to believe then that the highways we had in Iowa were, in reality, only about 30 years old.
Those in my age group, I’m sure, will remember the old narrow two-lane roads that were “major” highways. Many had what we called “lips” on both sides, asphalt about four inches higher than the traveled roadway, put there in the mistaken thought they provided safety for drivers. In reality, drivers easily and often lost control of their cars on those side-of-the-road ridges. At times they’d spin harmlessly. On other occasions they’d wind up in the ditch. In the worst-case scenario, there would be an oncoming car and many lives were lost in collisions.
Eventually, those berms on the sides of highways were removed, the roads were widened and traveling became far safer. By the 1960s, during the Eisenhower Administration, the interstate highway system began to be built.
However, I remember the 1960s for more than just the construction of interstate highways, of widening existing two-lane highways, and the paving of miles upon miles of rural roads in Iowa. It was the decade of dissent in America.
It didn’t start that way. In the first half of that decade, those of us who’d begun a college life, or who had taken their first jobs to being a part of the working society, found an escape in the new messages sent through Rock ‘n Roll music.
For the first time, girl groups began hitting the charts with songs like “He’s So Fine” and “Our Day Will Come.” And, there was the West Coast invasion – one hit followed another by groups like The Beach Boys, and Jan and Dean. Landlocked Iowans began hearing songs about surfing and fast cars with big engines.
Well, we couldn’t surf, but many of us (I’m ashamed of it now) turned those newly-paved rural roads in mid-Iowa into impromptu drag strips. Just about any night during the summer, you could find two friends, or whole groups of young folks, gathered at a pre-determined spot to race their cars on pre-measured quarter-mile strips of asphalt.
Of course, if you’d ask us, it wasn’t our fault at all. It was Detroit. Car manufacturers in “Motor City” were locked in a race to create the fastest cars powered by the biggest engines – all in an effort to win a NASCAR race on the weekend or a drag race around the nation.
Naturally, that affected everyone in America and young folks were eager to jump in the “race.” Ford introduced the “tunnel-port” engine, Chrysler came out with the “Hemi” and Chevrolet offered huge engines that produced more than 400 horsepower.
My late brother and I had a 1960 Corvette that created so much speed that it made my Mother shake when we talked about it around the dinner table one Sunday. (“What’s wrong, Mom?” I asked. “I don’t want to hear this; I could have lost both my sons at the same time,” she said through tears.)
It’s easy to remember those good times and hard to remember the bad times, especially the threat of Vietnam that hung over us all.
I was in a “happy zone” of thoughts that afternoon as I drove leisurely down Highway 30. I saw a small car approaching from the rear, coming up very quickly. I watched the road ahead and the small car in the mirror. He didn’t slow much, just moved into the left lane and zoomed past.
I chuckled to myself. It was a young man, who quickly drove by me, well over the 65-mph speed limit. He put the accelerator to the floor and the engine “roared” as he zoomed past.
“Wow,” I thought. “The days of the ‘muscle car’ and powerful engines are long gone.”
It was really funny to hear the purr of a 4-cylinder engine – especially one that’s un-muffled on a four-lane highway.