Wrong Way

Once, not all that long ago, the road was all the rage. Today, the rage is no longer about the road, but rather ON it. How is it that in less than half a century we have moved from romantic notions of freedom and the open road to being stalled in a traffic jam of deep and foreboding cynicism; an ego-centered combative mindset diametrically opposed to the images thrust upon us by advertising and the media? Of course, such questions betray a degree of simplistic analysis. It was not uncommon to get into an altercation with ones fellow motorist in the ‘50s and ‘60s (in fact, I once garnered the black eye to attest to the fact). Yet, one can make generalities regarding these two eras, for it IS common knowledge that our highways are less friendly than they once were, if for no other reason than there are more of us on the road than ever before. Like adding more and more lab rats into a confined space, overcrowding of our city streets or interstates results in disturbing displays of aggression and abnormal behavior. It's basic science.

But surely there is more to this dilemma than mere primal reactions to overcrowding. It seems reasonable to conclude that the very loss of the promise, the image of freedom and personal adventure denied by the realities of jammed highways and endless sprawl, may well lead to a bad attitude.

This observer's first exposure to the romance of the road lay no further than his own front yard where four narrow lanes of concrete passed by our front gate leading off to places yet to be discovered. Seemingly endless hours were spent contemplating the traffic and identifying the cars, while the television on the other side of our front window played the theme from “Route 66″, carrying me away even further to the still somewhat wild west. And let us not forget Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats “On the Road”, going coast-to-coast carrying another kind of freedom, one that shunned and mocked the constraints of early 20th Century customs and many of its stodgy values and beliefs.

Yet, even while this quasi-rebellion grew amongst those who came of age in the late ‘40s and mid-50s, the managers of perception drew us all that much closer into their deadly embrace, replacing concepts of freedom and liberation (all be they warped in the lens of the so-called American Dream) with OBJECTS to be bought and sold. The Corvette driven by the sanitized travelers on “Route 66″ being not the least of those in a program sponsored by General Motors, the manufacturer of that very car. Today, this form of “entertainment” is common, but then it was, dare I say, revolutionary? The Car Culture that had already surpassed public transportation in both body and mind reached another level, an engineered “phenomena” that would net Big Auto/Big Oil unimaginable profits at the same time welding and mortgaging middle and working class Americans to The Machine even more than in the previous decades. Already the corporate raiders had undermined public transportation through buy-outs of the ecologically more sound streetcars and railways, selling off the assets and gutting the systems. All that was left to do was to convince an existing materialistic society that personal automotive transportation would give them happiness and freedom, perhaps even love. To “see the USA in your Chevrolet” was to discover America and its promise of adventure and satisfaction. The fact that it was a broken promise is only now being realized by most of the population.

Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, for all their romanticizing of life on the road, may have been the first to shed some light on that loss, at least in popular culture terms (philosophers such as Lewis Mumford and, of course, radical artists like Fritz Lang had already laid the groundwork). In the 1960s and the coming of Woodstock Nation, Flower Power, and the New Left the materialistic values enmeshed in the Car Culture truly came under scrutiny by a wider audience, but most of the hippies and revolutionaries still cling to the car itself, albeit covered with flower decals or day-glo paint. The Merry Pranksters , Steven Gaskin's caravan (having yet to settle on The Farm), and hordes of neo-gypsies went on the road in hopes of getting their “kicks on Route 66″, following in Kerouac's wake. A good number of us lived on the road into the ‘70s, but the writing was on the wall as the highways began filling up with so-called recreational vehicles, giant land yachts that carried all the comforts of home, driven by older citizens whose values and lifestyles were anathema to those who had sought liberation out on the asphalt. As the roads became more congested it became more difficult to camp along the roadsides in rest areas and state parks. And as the nation became more embroiled in the war in Vietnam and the tension rose between the Establishment and those who questioned it, the police became more abusive of one's perceived freedom. Of course, real freedom was never a thing to be had out on the highway. For the most part, all that was manufactured freedom. I'd like to think we all knew that. Perhaps we thought the ACT of going on the road would help us to free ourselves from society's fetid grip. Yet, the road itself, and the means to gain it, were the product of that society. All it took for many of us at that point was the Energy Crisis and the advent of environmentalism to send us off the exit ramp.

However, even today, many of our fellow citizens seem oblivious to the shoddy bill of goods we all have been sold. They spend vast fortunes on SUVs that consume vast quantities of fuel, oil, and rubber, all the while pumping life-threatening amounts of exhaust into the atmosphere, all in the name of perceived comfort and convenience (even safety!), but most especially because of the image they have purchased. An image fabricated to fool them into believing their vehicle makes them sexy, or special in any number of ways. An image still manufactured to lure the buyer into believing he or she will achieve some degree of adventure or liberation by driving a particular machine. It is, of course, sheer folly. Some of us are stupid enough to believe it, but I think most of us are well aware of the lies. And I think that knowledge is, in no uncertain terms, a good bit of the reason the roads have become so unfriendly. We know we are being had, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. The infrastructure has been created to feed us to The Machine and we seem to have limited access to alternative routes (or so it appears). There is a lot of anger in our world these days for a lot of reasons. There's no need to do the litany here, to go on about powerlessness, alienation, social and economic pressures. Is it so surprising that people carry that baggage on the road with them? And there, on the road, where they are SUPPOSED to find freedom and satisfaction, instead they find only tedious traffic, urban/suburban sprawl, valleys shrouded in smog, and other drivers equally dismayed or pissed off.

All that is bad enough, and if social dysfunction were our only concern we might even find the right road to redemption. But, now we learn on the doorstep of the 21st Century that our 19th Century fossil fuel combustion engine technology is undermining the very life systems that support us on planet Earth. More vehicles driven by more people on more roads, and soon enough we find that all the costs of our automotive technology, from manufacture, through operation, to disassembly takes a toll so great as to threaten our very survival and that of other species we share the biosphere with. The recent study released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch/) , and supported by the vast majority of senior scientists around the world, presents dire findings for the climate including increased temperatures, flooding, and catastrophic storms. Much of the blame for this climate disruption, not to mention the associated pollution loading of our air and water, can be laid on the doorstep of Big Auto/Big Oil, now represented in the White House by oilman George. W. Bush and in the US Congress by a whole host of the usual suspects. These are the proper recipients of our rage, not our fellow citizens out on the road. The knowledge and capacity for alternative transportation has been within their reach for decades, if not the better part of a century. But Big Oil sells oil, and Big Auto is in bed with them, deeply. Only a vocal, active, outraged citizenry will move them to change their ways, for they are seemingly blinded by the golden calf of profit to the detriment of themselves and their children and, of course, the rest of us as well.

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