The Ambition Of The Open Road

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

We were in a van, and our van was everything.

We had four days of hard driving, Ohio to California, and we had built the van so it was a COVID-free microcosm. We’d hammered together a wooden platform with joists to place our mattress on, so we had a firm place to sleep. We had packed charge stations for Gini’s CPAP machine, these huge things we powered off the charge cable stuffed into the cigarette lighter, which was in turn powered by this ancient 1993 Ford Econoline engine.

We stopped for gas; the only outside infusions. Everything else was self-contained; the ten-gallon jugs of water, the giant bags of trail mix, the phones endlessly playing videos over a radio that continually blared its new and sexy tech of “MP3 PLAYER INCLUDED!”.

And we drove for four days.

The road never ended.

It’s impossible to really imagine how big America is until you put the time into traversing it. We’d have our heels planted on the accelerator until our ankles ached, watching the distant horizon seem impossibly small and befogged, and we’d get there and find even more to go.

The landscape changed; the gently rolling fields of Kansas, the harsh alkali pools of Wyoming, the unearthly red rocks of Colorado, the salt flats of Utah, the mighty forests of California. We drove through rain and a sky blackened by wildfire. We drove through cities, their signs promising gas and good food and entertainment, and then those gave way to the huge empty spaces where you could drive two hours and not see a gas station.

It was a vast emptiness.

Except it wasn’t.

There was the road.

And I think of how long it would take me to build a road. We live on a small block in a small suburb outside of Cleveland, and if they said to me, “You have to resurface that road,” it would take me months, maybe years, because even a block is huge compared to a man.

If they’d said “Build a road out of nothing,” just dig down to make a stable surface and then pour the underpinnings for a road that’ll last through the softening summer heat and the buckling cold of winter, it might be a decade’s project, even with the big power equipment, because the landscape is deep and men are small.

Yet wherever we went, there was the road.

Mountains had been blasted aside to make room for the road. Small armies had been brought out to these distant deserts to lay the road. The road was unstoppable, this extrusion of manpower and technology and sheer goddamned will, the work of people who said “I am building an impossible path from one coast to another,” and not only did this once, but did it so many times that America is criss-crossed with these incredible guidelines through harsh lands that would kill you without even noticing your moldering bones.

The road never stopped.

The road was a miracle. One of the greatest works we’ve possibly ever made.

And I kept thinking about the internet arguments I got into, the ones that said that free enterprise is the only solution, that government always fails, that you gotta leave these tasks up to some lucky shmuck who had rich parents who could float them enough massive loans to nourish their hard work into billions.

But no company was ever going to build these roads. They’d have to have put tolls on every mile to make them marginally profitable, tolls nobody in their right mind would pay. This wasn’t like the railroads, where you could make profits off of long freight.

These roads were basically, “It’s going to cost us an unimaginable amount of money to connect these distant towns, but we think there’s more benefit than an immediate profit.”

And so the government got to.

It’s amazing. It’s herculean. It’s engineering and science and competence all wrapped up in a continual spooling package that nobody even thinks of as a triumph any more because we did it, what’s the big deal guys, it exists and by the way the government is incompetent and inefficient and we need to drown it in a bathtub.

But there is a government that can do mighty labors, when we expect it to. There’s a government that, in the time of the Founding Fathers, went to huge efforts to bring newspapers to remote, half-forgotten towns because the Founding Fathers were far more zealous about the delivery of mail and news than they ever were committed to guns.

Conservatives have told us that government is useless, which it’s not – it can be inefficient, to be sure, and prone to boondoggles, and harm to all the other drawbacks of any other large-scale projects.

But at the same time, free enterprise wouldn’t have built those roads – not to the same places, not for the same driver-fed prices. Just like free enterprise isn’t bringing fiber-optic cable to rural towns; when there’s no profit, there’s not enough scale to make improvement.

That single road, all 2,000 miles of it, is one flexed muscle – a reminder that government can do great things, massive things, unthinkably beautiful and useful things when we demand it.

In a day of pandemic, where the best we can do is toss money at Fortune 500 companies and call it a day, well, that road is a useful reminder.

One might even say it’s a path to a new future.

But I wouldn’t.

I’m driving.

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