U.S. is bigger than it looks

Only in a country this huge.This is a huge country, a point eloquently made on a recent drive to Florida.

Unfortunately, using GPS is a little like walking through a wood at night with a pen light. You can see what is under your feet, but beyond that – zip.

You are here.

But where is here?

Just follow the purple line, it commands.

Back in the day, we had the Rand McNally Road Atlas. You found where you were, and then could easily see where that was relative to everywhere else. Sometimes you would discover features you had not planned to visit. GPS keeps such distractions secret.

On the other hand, from my station behind the steering wheel, places never turn out to be as close as they appear in the old Rand-McNally. For one thing, Maine was on a single page. So was Alaska. The latter is way bigger.

When Daughter was in high school, she looked at a map of Alaska and thought she would like to teach in Fairbanks, where teachers were needed. After all, she could go to the big city of Anchorage any night she wanted dinner and a movie.

It took a ruler and a scale of miles to show her that though both states fit on a single page in our road atlas, a half-hour ride on the Maine map was about eight-to-10 hours in the land of Sam McGee.

One of our overnights was at the Howard Johnson motel in St. Augustine, Fla. I thought HoJo had ceased to exist, but my spouse was certain. At her direction, I drove the circumference of the Oldest City in the United States, and had nearly closed the loop when there it was, the iconic orange roof.

In a city featuring a stone fort and the Fountain of Youth, the HoJo fit right in – a row of tiny rooms. painted-over broken tiles, and the bed nearly blocking access to the shower. It was reminiscent of a “motor inn” at which I stopped on the way west with a close friend many years ago – a tiny cabin with  double bed and a gas heater we had to figure out how to light.

The HoJo we old folks remember is indeed gone. The last HoJo restaurant is rumored to be open someplace in New York State, but the chain of motels that carries the name now is owned by Wyndham.

The Interstate Highway System is a marvel of transportation planning. Created in the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was created to offer safe, efficient, high speed (for 1950) travel free of traffic jams and anything else that, in Eisenhower’s words, prevented “speedy, safe transcontinental travel.”

The traveling public, most of which was more into traveling to destinations relatively close to home, did not at first see the need expending treasure on cross-national speedways. Fortunately for Ike, there was the ready threat of Communism, the Red Scare, Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) and nuclear bombs.

So Eisenhower painted the expense as essential to the efficient movement of military wares. When the Russians began lobbing nuclear bombs, he said, the Interstate system would allow rapid evacuation from the nation’s targets, er, cities.

An amazing amount of human product has been created under the guise of military necessity. Our Space Race, for instance, was not waged for exploration, but rather to give the winner control of the highest ground from which to aim weapons at its enemy.

But as military boondoggles go, the Interstate system and GPS were good ones. Or would be if we could divert some military money to maintain the highways.

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