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Life is a Highway

Updated: Jun 28

Natalie-Francesca Woods



Road tripping with friends

 

Allow me to preface with one undeniable truth: I am a homebody.


The luxury of repose spent in one’s own space, the horizon clear of disruptions, cannot be overstated. To expand my lungs with the texture of familiar breezes, gaze traipsing over life’s accumulated knick-knacks and tchotchkes, remains a favorite pastime of mine. I hold the home I have created for myself quite dearly.


As a youngster, the prospect of traveling filled me with a sense of dread. Coupled with a daydreamer’s habit of forgetting the library book I’d wanted to read, I would feel adrift and uncertain on how to ground when my family took trips across the state. And a propensity for carsickness… “away” was not a place for me.


Assuming the driver’s seat on long sojourns has helped quell gastric unrest, as well as supported my need for “introvert power hours.” While my tchotchkes may remain at home, I’ve become more adept at settling myself within the routines of pack up and pack out. And, as I’ve come to find since leaving home, there is a place within each of us that cannot be jostled by external stochasticity.


Regardless of the distance I’ve traversed from the home fires of my San Francisco apartment, there’s a cranny of my mind relatively immune to turbulence. It’s a home inside, filled with thoughts of loved ones and happy memories.


There, I find my roommates, to whom I would love to bring not just tales and pictures, but fully embodied experiences, of my travels. As I navigate familiar grounds, I greet the paths trod by childhood companions now far-flung, having left California for new adventures and cheaper rent. There’s a special nook of gratitude for my mother, who braved oceans and cultural idiosyncrasies to allow me the trips on which I find myself. I reflect upon the various iterations of self that put one sequential step in front of the other - through all of my cellular turnovers and the branching paths that have led to the ~trailheads of today~.

(Come here, there’s a great view of the highway!) (trailhead moment)

 

So, how does all of this relate to highways?

Somewhere in the process of becoming affectionate towards travel, I seem to have developed tender feelings for our roadways. After all, to get to most of the Grizzlies requires a four hour journey, and the memories of good music or phone calls with brilliant friends as wheels turn on pavement have coalesced into a fascination with the drives themselves. What can I say? I’m a triple Sag. It’s in the stars for me to wander.


GrizzlyCorps partners with organizations across the state, from the northern-flung high desert rangelands of Shasta Valley to the ecologically mosaiced topographies of San Diego county. The ecosystem engineering performed by humans in this great system that sustains us synergizes, for better and for worse, with all other biotic and abiotic component parts to sustain the life force of our landscapes.


"What can I say? I’m a triple Sag. It’s in the stars for me to wander."

Paradoxically, working in-house for GrizzlyCorps has entailed a great deal of travel to other host sites – and to orient myself as a lone female traveler, I’ve needed to commit to a thorough study of our highways.

The National Highway System, a military-defined system of evacuation and defense routes across the country.

What began as deepening my understanding of California’s major roadways has blown completely out of proportion and now you, dear reader, will suffer along with me. Buckle up: we’re going national, transcenturial, and into a nostalgic as heck camera roll of road trips.


This year, work and play have put about 20,000 miles on ol’ Wally: my dusty, trusty (and, should passengers be believed, occasionally musty) Outback.


Wally<3

Wally and I have listened to Rayland Baxter on CA-299 (Eureka Way), King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard along CA-193 (Georgetown Rd), and PinkPantheress along CA-76 (no fun name here, just Hwy 76). We take I-80E to get to Berkeley on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then a system of I-580 to US-101 to Park Presidio to get home at night. Of course, there have been countless stretches of losing our collective marbles to Pantera on I-5 as the sun sets to the left or right (depending on the spatiotemporal nature of our destination).


“Stay safe!” – 19-year-old Nat, Kancamagus Highway (NH-112)



One might think of those numbers next to the songs as meaningless – but there are patterns. Oh, there are patterns. And so, I present to you: How to Read Highways and Hopefully Reduce Your Chances of Getting Lost in the Future!


 








The U.S. Interstate Highway System


We’ll begin where I began my highways obsession: in 2019, driving back to California from Maine after my freshman year of college (see: above image). To get home, I would need abut 4,000 miles and several interstate changes. We’re talking national scale, baby: the United States Interstate Highway System.


On June 29th, 1956, Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller in White Plains, New York. Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower also happened to sign into effect the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (primary sponsor: Congressman George Hyde Fallon, D-MD) into effect, but who cares about that, right?


The Act allocated $23 billion (2023: $215 billion) of funding for a decade of labor on 41,000 miles of highway construction, in part sustained by reallocations from the Defense budget. States were expected to pay about 10% of construction costs, while the federal government would contribute 90% to the project. At the time, the Interstate Highway System project was the largest American public works project ever attempted and built upon a half-century of planning. See: maps below for some earlier ideas and projects.

 

The 1926 “final plan” for a United States highway system, proposed by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO).

Map of previous highway system in the contiguous U.S. from 1938. Blue lines are proposed Interstate Highways hand-drawn by FDR.
Today’s Interstate Highway System

 

So, how do we navigate this beast of a public works project today?


The U.S. Interstate Highway System

Should you find yourself traveling kitty-corner across the country, check the first number and the last in the highway. You’ll identify these interstates by their prefix: an “I” (for Interstate), followed by two numbers – ending either in a 0 or a 5.


Roads traveling east to west will be a multiple of 10, in ascending order from south to north: I-10 will get you to New Orleans if you’re coming from Los Angeles, and I-90 is the “Great Northern” up along the Canadian border. NOTE: there are no I-50 or I-60. When the standardized naming conventions rolled out, the states that these two highways would have run through already had existing roadways of the same name, so these projects were not implemented.


If your objective is to mess with the length of your days, you’re probably more interested in traveling north-south. Chasing sunsets on I-5 is always fun – around here. On the east coast, you’re more likely taking I-95. As we go east, the interstates will go from 5, 15, 25… all the way up to 95.


In summary, the U.S. Interstate Highway System will begin with an I and end in a 0 or 5. This system is the one implemented by Eisenhower, building upon an existing arterial network of smaller public works projects from prior decades.



The Interstate Highway System is best for long journeys, but where do you turn in the in-between zones as you approach your destination? Enter: the U.S. Highways and State Routes!

 

U.S. Highways and State Routes


A cryptid at a rest stop in Fresh Pond, CA (US-50)

Maybe we’re taking a shorter trip – or have a little more time and want the scenic way. Enter: the U.S. Highways and State Routes.


Similarly to the Interstate Highway System, U.S. Highways with odd numbers travel north-south and even-named ones run east-west. Unlike the IHS, they begin small in the north and the east, and increase by increments of two each time (to maintain that odds-and-evens convention).


We also have State Routes in the pre-Eisenhower schematic. Since many of the State Routes and U.S. Highways were developed before federal acts to nationally standardize numbering, nationwide naming can get a bit willy-nilly. This is where context can really help. For example, one might be confused the mysterious presence of two coastal highways, each colloquially referred to as “Highway/Route 1.”


Sunrise at 4:35 AM in Falmouth, ME off US-1


In Maine, we’d often visit Falmouth’s harbors by turning onto I-95 from ME-137, briefly finding ourselves on the spur I-295 (we’ll get to weird three-digit ones, I promise), and finally spitting out on Route 1.



 




Sunset at 8:37 PM in Half Moon Bay, CA off CA-1



In California, I’d often visit Half Moon Bay by turning onto US-101, hopping over to CA-92, and turning onto Route 1.









How can the same highway extend across the country?


A twist: it does not! These are completely different roads. The devil is in the details, and in this case the details are the following: naming prefixes, silent and usually rendered obsolete by geographic context.


The east coast “1” is really a shortening for U.S. Highway 1, which is part of the intrastate roadway system that predated the Eisenhower IHS discussed above. The numbering would be shortened and notarized as US-1, with each sequential westward version adding a number before this. Californian fun fact: US-101 is part of this same system! These highways increase by much smaller discrete intervals to accommodate for closer distribution and local access. In western Wyoming, for example, we’d find US-89 just to the east of US-91.


Agate Beach off of CA-1

Meanwhile, the gorgeous, landslide-riddled dreamscape of Highway 1, Pacific coastal route of acclaim, is the linguistically abbreviated form of State Route 1 – something completely different. On maps, it would show up as CA-1 (“SR,” or State Route, is typically replaced by the home state of the road, but it can be notated both ways). As we don’t have another US- or I-named Highway One to contend with in the state, we can thereby have a named State Route labeled as such. Arguably, of the two, CA-1 probably makes more sense for Grizzlies traveling coastally in their service year.


A good way to check in about Highways/Routes versus Interstates is to see where you are in the country, and then check the numbering. Let’s pretend we’re in Kalispell, Montana. Nice and northwest. The Interstates nearest you are probably I-90 (big = north) and I-15 (small = west). The Routes nearest you, on the other hand, are US-2 (small = north) and US-93 (big = west).

In the northwest, US Routes are high-numbered for north-south (e.g. US-93) and low-numbered for east-west (US-2). Meanwhile, you can see that the Interstate Highway System route is low-numbered for its north-south freeway (I-15). Near Dupuyer is also US-89, which travels down to Wyoming.
A geeky topographic relief enthusiast standing on the guardrail for US-89, slightly southeast of that Kalispell example. This is a 2-laner that runs through Shoshone National Forest – not a U.S. Interstate by any means, but absolutely necessary for local access!

On a map, another super quick way to identify whether you’re on a Route, Highway, or Interstate when traveling between states is to check what the badge shape on your map looks like. The US Interstate System displays a navy-blue background with a red stripe up top and a white number (Very Patriotic). The US Highways, on the other hand, have a white badge outlined and numbered in black (Très Minimaliste). Finally, most locally, we have California State Routes in their green acorn shape (So Cute!).

State Route on the left, US Highway in the middle, and Interstate on the right. State Routes are classically badged as a white circle with black numerals inside, but the design is left up to the state – it isn’t uncommon to see the shape of the state you’re in as the background for the route number. The green acorn is California’s, so probably most relevant to readers of this post.

 

While State Route and U.S. Highway naming conventions can get funky, they’re usually a fantastic solution for where you’re going to go. Visiting Allensworth Progressive Association in May, I was thankful to have the streamlined efficiency of CA-99 (quick test: north-south or east-west highway??) to get me there from Davis. If I’d only had the Interstate Highway System available to me, I-5 would have pulled me fairly west of my final destination, adding distance and time to my journey.


We! Love! Routes!! Thick lines are State Routes and U.S. Highways, and the fainter red lines are the Interstate Highway System. Without these smaller road systems, the vast network of interconnectivity would greatly diminish.


Spurs, loops, and other bits and bobs


I said we’d get to it, and we’re here: the spurs. The offshoots. The loops.


What now, huh? What kind of funky naming conventions are these??


Freeways with three digits are shorter auxiliary road systems that are named after their “parent” road, adopting the primary U.S. Highway or Interstate number as their last two digits and taking on their prefix as well (e.g. I- or US-). They are primarily developed to serve urban areas, as can be seen with the system of Auxiliary Interstate Highways around the densely populated Bay Area.


Bay Area highways

Traveling down the peninsula from San Francisco, I take I-280: it's got that third number at the front, but it’s meant to represent that the road system is near and (theoretically) connected to I-80. This can be deceiving when it comes to whether or not these offshoots and their parent highway actually connect.


For example, I-280 is named for I-80, as the two roadways were intended to connect in San Francisco at the Bay Bridge. However, due to logistical challenges between the highway’s planning phases and its execution, I-280 does not follow the rule of actually finding a terminus in the parent highway. This is unique to other Bay Area  of I-80 such as I-580 (I-5 in Tracy to I-80 in Albany, as well as the Richmond Bridge through San Rafael), I-880 (San Jose to I-80 in Oakland), and I-680 (Cordelia Junction with I-80 to San Jose).


As demonstrated with these offshoots, also known as “bypasses,” planning can lead to naming conventions that don’t necessarily align with the actually built structures. Within these Bay Area highways, I think that I-580 does its naming job “the best,” linking I-5 with I-80 (hence: I-580), though this is coincidental.


Sunset over I-280


And... scene


Thank you for absorbing some of those numbers and historical factoids! There is a larger conversation to have about the politics and power involved with roadways (for example, the G-O Road project in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties), and in the future I hope these are discussions we can have as beneficiaries of American roadways. That said, this blog post is already a cross-national roadtrip of a trek, and I would hope that when we do engage in discourse surrounding the ecological and sociopolitical impacts of infrastructure projects, those dialogues will occur in settings that allow them the space and intentionality they deserve.


With the explosion of modern navigational technologies, there’s a high chance you will never need what you just read. That said, here are a few tips for any travelers that want to use our highways, whether or not they give a hoot about the numeric conventions of the roads:


How to escape from Dexter Pond in Winthrop, Maine

Logging roads

If you’re lost on a logging road and follow it back to a main street, look at the angle of the intersection. Of the directions you could turn, choose the one that has a wider angle – it’s the way back to a major roadway.







This minion lives on the logging road by Dexter Pond, by the way.

Gas

If you drive a vehicle that uses a combustion engine, chances are you’ll eventually need to stop for fuel. A few tips and tricks: before setting out on your journey, check the distance you’ll travel and the driving range left in your vehicle. A good rule of thumb is to keep your tank filled at least halfway on a long drive so that you don’t need to stop after dark in a strange area – or to feel desperate and get really pricey gas when you’re almost empty.


Maps

Take the time to print out or write down the step-by-step instructions before you begin your journey. Extreme temperatures (e.g. heat or cold), electronic device battery life, or lack of service can all hinder you from reaching point B if you are dependent on wireless connection to access your maps. It doesn’t hurt to have a back-up (as is the theme of this blog post)!


iOverlander helped us find boondocking around the Badlands in 2019 (off WY-240).


iOverlander

A great app for finding scenic locations and crowdsourcing information about places to stay overnight! Reviews and frequent updates by fellow travelers can help you sniff out safe and scenic locations.












Restrooms and stretch breaks

Here are a few recommendations for well-lit and round-the-clock staffed locations:


  • Love’s Travel Stops Love’s has a free rewards system that I personally quite enjoy, as well as showers and basically every trucker necessity inside the store. Plus, since it’s set up for travelers on the go, fuel dispenses quickly and there are usually a ton of pumps. Locations: along major interstates (I-5 and I-80 in California).

  • Bass Pro/Cabela’s The cleanest restrooms I've ever seen. 10/10 would recommend for a pit stop.

Walmart parking lot study breaks during finals week (we were at our limit)
  • Walmart and other large chains These can be more hit-or-miss with parking lot companions, but generally their size and national presence lends a certain level of protocol to lighting and bathrooms being inside the store.

  • Rest stops Rest stops can on occasion be more suspect. I would recommend using any cell service to check in with someone you trust before entering rest areas (and sometimes gas stations!) that you haven’t visited before. While hopefully purely precautionary, California has one of the highest rates of human trafficking per capita in the country (link). Take the time to stay safe out there, everyone.

 

 

Additional pictures taken from Highways, Routes, and Interstates


Rainbow on ME-27
A view of Mt. Shasta on I-5 N (please excuse the bugs)
Leaf peeping and snowy season on the same stretch of I-95 N


Sunrise over I-80 W just before the I-680 S Junction
Mt. Tam from I-580 W/the Richmond Bridge
CA-299W to Weaverville


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