By Dale Martin
September 10, 2021
As its final independently produced film, Pixar Animation Studios released Cars (2006). My daughters enjoyed the film’s cartoon talking cars. What I found most interesting in the film, however, was the theme of the movie: in an auto-centric world, the presence and character of small towns diminished.
When I first entered college, a required reading for a pre-term freshman class was a newly published book, Blue Highways (William Least Heat Moon, 1982). I have always enjoyed studying maps (preferably paper, not electronic maps). Prior to the satellite navigation systems widely used today, it was very common for everyone to have a copy of a Rand McNally road atlas. In those books, the less traveled back roads were colored blue. Blue Highways told the story of Heat Moon’s contemplative journey across America, travelling only on the blue highways between small towns, shunning the interstate highways and associated commercialism. The book was on the New York Times best seller list for almost a year; nonetheless, since it was a freshman required reading, it faded quickly from memory.
It returned to my thoughts twenty-five years later when I first saw Cars. The setting for Cars is a forgotten small town, Radiator Springs. It was a “blue highway” town, whose little local glory faded when a new interstate highway bypassed the town. Radiator Springs and its townspeople faded to mundane nothingness. It was through an otherwise unrelated series of events that rejuvenated Radiator Springs.
The message that resonated with me, now well into my city manager career, serving predominantly in small, blue highway towns, was that our reliance on cars crippled American small towns. As a child, I remember what was then the dreaded Sunday drive through the small towns of rural Michigan; most of those small towns, including the town my grandfather linked to Detroit with his family truck and bus company (Rochester), have now been swallowed by sprawl. For the most part, the suburbs of Detroit are now indistinguishable from each other: a CVS, Walgreen’s, gas stations, and strip malls block after block, every intersection the same as the one a mile back.
I realized that we now use our cars to make good time instead of having good times.
Those memories and realizations returned last weekend during a holiday trip to southwest Florida (Sanibel Island). Leaving Fernandina and heading west, we passed I-95 and continued to Callahan and picked up Highway 301. Highway 301 was a blue highway, extended into Florida in the 1940s, prior to the development of the interstate system.
The small towns and deteriorated buildings along Highway 301 revive thoughts of life before I-95 and I-75: Baldwin, Lawtey, Waldo, Starke, fruit stands, and small manufacturers. In some ways, it is a mournful journey, again indicative of the diminishment of blue highway towns.
It was near both Baldwin and Starke that the most visible effect of the abandonment of blue highways was evident: the State has constructed bypasses around those communities, leaving them, in my opinion, to wither like Radiator Springs. We need to get “there” fast and it takes too long to pass through blocks of small town businesses, character, and history. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
Now perhaps the local officials of Baldwin and Starke supported the bypasses. Perhaps all that traffic from “those” people, those despised visitors and tourists who made locals wait for two whole traffic light rotations rather than only one, who took all the parking spots within ten feet of the store making the locals walk fifty feet, can now be directed away from their town centers. I would rather believe that some insulated state bureaucrat, at the direction of a state politician, designed the bypasses because it simply took too long to travel through Starke or Baldwin (perhaps in the latter due to the significant impact of train movements near that community). Future travelers on Highway 301 who have never been to downtown Baldwin or Starke, will likely never see those towns in their rush to get to wherever they are going. If it is true that local officials promoted the bypass, watch what you asked for, because you now have it.
Small towns create the American character. Ft. Myers, and so many other modern metro areas, was “rinse and repeat”: condos, strip malls, condos, strip malls. Bleh. I’d rather drive slowly along the blue highways like Heat Moon and be reinvigorated by the small towns, wondering, why was this place settled, what was in like at its height, especially if its connection to the rest of the country was through a railroad, who came from this town? Fascinating questions.
Go wander and enjoy a blue highway.