When federal and state highways pass through towns and cities, the roads are identical with local streets. This is not the case with interstate highways. But I like to reminisce about the older roads as they still wind and turn through communities. One of my favorite series of highway “jogs,” for instance, is in Pana, Illinois, where northbound U.S. 51 becomes Poplar Street, turns east four blocks on First Street (which is pretty), turns north a block on Cedar St., turns east again on Jackson St. for a mile or so, and then returns to its northerly path. (I also love the slight turn the highway makes a little ways north, at the undulating landscape around the turn to Dollsville, IL) You don’t get that kind of local commonality with interstates; you just rush along to get where you’re going. Most days, that’s what I want.
I share my late father’s odd habit of studying maps for no particular reason. I ordered a 1950s St. Louis map from eBay because I wondered where the older highways had been located in the city, prior to the interstates.
This map revealed a fact that I’d always read about in Route 66 histories: the St. Louis versions of old 66 were several, including the main route, the city route, and the bypass route. Today, U.S. 40 is also Interstate 64 straight through St. Louis (locals, in fact, don't even call the interstate "64," they call it "Highway 40"), and U.S. 50 follows the southerly route of Interstate 255. But 40 and 50 once followed the city and county streets and also had alternate routes; 50, for instance, was additionally signed “Turnpike 40.”
Manchester Road, a major west-east street in St. Louis, is locally commemorated as an early path of Route 66. This map, however, revealed to me that Manchester Road was also U.S. 50 through the city. U.S. 50 is still a transcontinental highway, from Ocean City to Sacramento--unlike routes 40, 60, 70, and 80, its route has not been truncated in the West--and was the subject of a Time magazine cover story a few years ago. In Nevada, 50 is "the country's loneliest road." How interesting to see that a street I regularly travel had, at one point, been part of that highway.
My own favorite section of U.S. 50 is the ten-mile stretch between Sandoval and Salem, Illinois, about 45 minutes or so from my hometown. This area is farm land, numerous small houses, the village of Odin, IL, and a few small industries. When I was a kid, my parents made country drives to this area to shop for antiques, for instance the Lincoln Trail shop at Odin, which is still there. Another antique store, on the north side of Route 50, looked promising but was open "by chance or appointment." Unfortunately, the store was NEVER open when we chanced by. Its perpetual closure became a family joke. Sometimes we stopped at a mom-and-pop hamburger place in Sandoval, at the north side of town across from an abandoned motel at the 50-51 split. You waited forever for your burgers but they were so good!
I’m sure I was bored and restless on these country trips, but they shine in my memory. U.S. 50 connected to the "home roads" IL 185 (via IL 37) and U.S. 51. But the highway was a Sunday drive away; we lived in another town, and the houses, businesses and churches along Route 50 were other people’s countryside. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in this “distant” rural area. Homes along the road had nice yards like mine, but behind those yards were cultivated fields, and beyond the fields were lines of deciduous timber. To me, the landscape incorporated pleasant aspects of town and countryside, both cozy and spacious. (The landscape along nearby U.S. 51, including the area in and around Vernon, IL, provides a similar nostalgic mix of highway, farm, timber, and home.)
I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than the Sandoval-to-Salem highway, but that road was enough like--and close enough to--my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled.