A few weeks ago I took a trip out west, mostly to New Mexico. I drove nearly 4,000 miles, mostly on U.S. Interstate highways. It fascinated me that no matter how much the scenery changed–and believe me, it changes between the Missouri Ozarks and the high desert country of the Sierra Nevadas–the road you’re traveling on stays remarkably the same. I told myself that when I got back I would find a good book about the highway system in the United States.
The book I found is The Big Roads: the untold story of the engineers, visionaries, and trailblazers who created the American superhighways, by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). It is a fascinating and well-told history of our highways, starting even before automobiles were much of a force on American roads. Did you know that it was bicyclists, participating in the two-wheeled craze of the late 19th century, who first insisted on having good, paved roads? Did you know that one man, a highway engineer, invented the cloverleaf, and held the patent on it?
But the thing that struck me most about the story is that the things we take as gospel truth in the development of America’s highways are simply not true, or at best, exaggerations. For instance, President Eisenhower is often cited as the creator of the highway system. Fact is, the entire system was conceived, planned, and begun, down to the nitty gritty details such as what signs to use, decades before his administration. His signature on a bill lending federal support to the project was about the extent of his involvement: and most of the work on that bill was handled by Vice President Nixon, while Ike was in the hospital. Eisenhower later mostly washed his hands of the project when he saw highways running places he believed they made no sense–such as right through the heart of most American cities.
It’s also believed by many people that the Interstate system was built to allow for planes to land on the highways when it was needed for national defense. The book dismisses this old canard as something ‘still alive on the Internet.’ It was talked about by some involved in the project, but quickly dismissed as infeasible for many reasons.
I found the whole book enlightening, and I am so glad I read it. It also drives home to me the truth that today, there is so much disinformation, bad information, and intentionally misleading information being shopped around that it’s hard to know what’s true. Many libraries, both public and academic, have been conducting workshops in how to spot ‘fake news,’ how to know when you’ve read something from a reliable source. It’s more than just a source you trust, since ‘a source you trust’ most often means a source that expresses opinions similar to yours.
I guess that in the end, this is a recommendation to stay informed by reading good books. They have long been, and will likely continue to be, one of the best places to get good information.This is not to say that all books contain nothing but truth. That is an unrealistic assumption. But a well researched non-fiction book, which cites its sources in careful footnotes, is almost always better than something your buddy posted on Facebook.