Interstate system ‘firsts’ are entirely subjective

A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.
A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.

INTERSTATE I80, Kan. – Near the end of an epic month-long road trip, which would span 19 states and two provinces, trusty Joe the truck rolled along what is billed with typical Kansas enthusiasm as The First Completed Section of The Interstate System.

We were by then jaded by roadside signs, but this drew contented smiles all around. The interstate system has led us to Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado—dozens upon dozens of spectacular places. And while country roads offer charm and adventure pivotal to any successful road trip, the interstates veining across the country are crucial to vagabonds like us.

The first section of interstate! And we were on it! But the word “first,” when it comes to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, is subjective.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the interstate wheels turning in 1941 by commissioning a report on the feasibility of a trans-American highway. Three years later, 40,000 miles of highway were approved, on the understanding that they would link not only major American cities, but also provide access to Canada and Mexico. Routes were chosen, dreams were dreamed, but no money was earmarked for the ambitious project until the 1950s, and even then the cash came in trickles.

Enter Eisenhower, who moved into the Oval Office in 1953. He wanted this road, and he wanted it bad. With his prodding, the project grew to 41,000 miles (as of 2002, it was nearly 47,000) and became a reality across the nation.

On June 29, 1956, he put his presidential John Hancock on the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

On August 2, Missouri signed two contracts under the act—for what would become the trailhead of the storied Route 66 and for the future Mark Twain Expressway, I70. It proudly boasts that it’s “the first project in the United States on which actual construction was started under the provisions of the new Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.” Not too sexy on a road sign, but it sounds legitimate.

So what of Kansas? That state signed a contract under the act on August 31, but work had already begun on the strip of blacktop I’d be driving over 57 years later. Thanks to the head start, that section was finished first and got its ribbon-cutting ceremony before Missouri, making it the first completed project under the act.

We got our thrill in Kansas, but we’ve driven on both “firsts.” In fact, we’ve driven more than 13,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate System. Just 33,000 to go.

The end of Kansas? The end of the world?

Photo by Melani Litwack
Photo by Melani Litwack

SMOKY HILLS, Kan. – “The hell is that?”

It was after dark in Kansas, just me and truckers on the road, as I like it.

Besides a short and incredible storm near the Colorado border—again, I suspected hail was involved but didn’t stop to investigate—our day in Kansas had been all I had hoped for: tornado free. If you think I’m vocal about my dislike of mountains, you should ask me about my fear of tornadoes.

Armed with the weather app Wunderground and a plan to spend the night in Salina, we’d made it nearly halfway across the state without incident. Then, on the black horizon—stretching the entire width of the world—hundreds of synchronized blinking red lights appeared.

We had a theories: An alien landing strip. A time machine. A plot to distract drivers and run them off the road to be picked off by zombies. The end of Kansas. The end of the world.

We were trapped. Behind and to each side, there was nothing but farmland. Salina was on the other side of those lights. If there was anything on the other side.

We drove for a long time and they still seemed so far away. I took some comfort in the evidence that there was a world of some sort beyond the thin red line: there were plenty of trucks on the other side of the highway and they had to come from somewhere.

Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.
Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.

“Windmills,” Melani finally said, and I nearly relaxed. “That’s a lot of windmills.”

It didn’t seem as though we’d gotten any closer, but suddenly they weren’t where I expected them to be, in front of me.

“Where’d they go?” I demanded of Trevor, who was riding shotgun. “Were they Called Home?”

“No, Mom. They’re all around us. We’re in the middle of them.”

I took my eyes off the road and horizon to peer out my window. Above, a million stars. Nearer to Earth, flanking and behind us, hundreds of red eyes blinking in tandem. I said something deep and meaningful that came directly from my heart.

I think it was: “Oh shit.”

* * *

Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.
Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.

When we left Colorado Springs that morning, our gracious and fun host Melle had told us we’d pass a large wind farm. We had, back in Colorado—probably a hundred of them spread out on the Plains in daylight.

But what we drove into on the way to Salina was the Smoky Hills farm, about 250 windmills spread over the farms of 100 landowners.

Of its 740 plants in 16 countries, Smoky Hills is Enel Green Power’s biggest, generating enough power to light up 85,000 homes annually. Kansas is second only to Texas in American wind potential, and these great, beautiful beasts only remove about two per cent of the land from agricultural service, according to Italy-based Enel’s website.

There will be more: In July, Enel announced a U.S.-based consortium led by JP Morgan would provide $260 million to fund the Buffalo Dunes project in Kansas.