We were on a short road trip, just an hour hike from Detroit to Port Huron, MI, and my German friend Mathias was giddy. He turned on a country station and said this was how he always imagined America. He came for the techno and urban decay, but he what he wanted to see was the open road.
Germany may have the Autobahn, but America grew up around the car. The large expanses of countryside carved up by highways and freeways are just as iconic as any skyline. The American love affair with road travel didn't spring up overnight. Whole industries, technological innovations and federal agencies had to come into being over time. Whether traveling across the country or a few hours from home, there's a lot to appreciate about the way road trips have shaped America.
Chamberlain, South Dakota - A concrete teepee encloses benches at a rest area by the Missouri River on Interstate 90.
Brace yourself for the high drama of the history of the roadside rest stop. The 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act didn't just set up the freeway system, but also the network of rest stops that line freeways to this day. The feds considered rest areas important safety measure, giving tired drivers a break from hours of travel.
The act called for the rest areas that would be maintained and supervised with bathrooms and areas for picnics. What the act didn't specify is how creative designers could be with the rest stops. These rest stop might be the only contact travelers had with the local culture as they pass through. Many are tailored to the region they're in, such as large tee-pees in southwestern states. Almost all contain some basic information about the state and surrounding area. Some are considered excellent examples in mid-century design and have developed an unusual fan base.
Check out the crazy map above. That is a AAA atlas of transcontinental routes in 1918, before most roads outside of cites had even a number to label them. The first usable maps with labeled streets came out in the late 1800s, but were for bikers, pedestrians, and carriages in big cities. People traveled long distances by train. Roads outside of major population centers were usually country dirt roads. When Horatio Nelson Jackson completed the first cross-country road trip in 1903 it took him sixty-three days of traveling over rough terrain to go from San Francisco to New York.
As cars became more common, lousy roads and maps became more of an issue. AAA was founded to deal with the map side of those problems. Along with Automobile Blue Book Publishing Company, AAA printed maps which highlighted "good" roads. These maps often included photos of routes to help drivers figure out where they were. The photos still posed a problem, as identifying roads by the surroundings would be useless if the landscape changed. AAA constantly sent out pathfinders to find what routes were safe for cars. Maps improved dramatically when standardization of route names and serious road improvement began in the 1920s.