One of the things that got me interested in the back highways was the city of Kokomo, Indiana. More accurately, it was avoiding Kokomo that helped spark my interest.

Long ago, US 31 went right through downtown Kokomo. But congestion became a problem, and so about 40 years ago a new four-lane US 31 was built to the east, bypassing the city. Businesses quickly sprouted along the bypass end to end – restaurants, gas stations, stores, even a mall. Stoplights multiplied like rabbits. Soon the bypass was even more congested than the original route through town had been.

Bypass on the left, old US 31 on the right

My dad let me have the spare car my senior year in college and at first I dutifully followed the route he always took when he drove me to school: US 31 from South Bend through Kokomo to Indianapolis, then I-465 west and south around the city, and then I-70 to Terre Haute. But I had to drive the Kokomo bypass only once to realize I didn’t want to do it again. The bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled along at 20 or 30 miles per hour, and I swear I stopped at every. last. stoplight.

It also didn’t help that the rest of the route was a crashing bore. Back then, Indiana’s maximum speed limit was 55 miles per hour. But both US 31 and I-70 were four-lane highways that begged for far greater speed.

So I began looking for alternative routes. I unfolded my Rand McNally map, which seems so quaint when I think about it now, and traced routes between my hometown and my college town. I found several suitable routes, all along two-lane Indiana state highways, and tried them all on my various trips back and forth. This was my first exposure to Indiana’s small towns and endless cornfields and I quickly became hooked.

Today, most of US 31 is posted at 60 MPH, and most of I-70 is posted at 70 MPH. I use these roads when I need to get somewhere in a hurry. But as much as possible I try to give myself plenty of time so I can enjoy driving through Indiana’s countryside.

Driving through Kokomo is still a drag, though. But not for much longer – the state is building another US 31 bypass even farther east of town. It’s a bypass of the bypass! This time they’re doing it right and making it an Interstate-style limited access highway. I’m sure I’ll try it out when it opens. But you’ll still be more likely to find me on a back highway.

And then there was the time I spun my car most of the way through tiny Fulton, Indiana. Read that story


22 responses to “Avoiding Kokomo”

  1. Dani Avatar

    I agree. Driving the current bypass around Kokomo isn’t what I would call a traveler’s delight. US 31 bypass deux will be a blessing.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I just feel sorry for the farmers who lost land to the bypass of the bypass.

  2. davidvanilla Avatar

    Had they only done it right the first time. Ah, hindsight is 20/20.

    1. Jim Avatar

      And now they get to do it again. And so it goes.

  3. dennyg Avatar

    But you only have to take it slow after you get there fast.

    Do you think that someday they’ll be writing sad songs about the plight of the poor McDonald’s on the bypassed bypass?

    1. Jim Avatar

      In the days of the double nickel, it seemed to take forever to get there. The speed limit fore and aft are only 5 mph higher now, but somehow that makes it a lot nicer.

      And don’t worry about McDonald’s; they’ll just move to one of the exits on the new bypass.

  4. hmunro Avatar

    How wonderfully ironic that an effort to avoid one town would open your eyes to so many others. Another great post, Jim!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks! It’s funny how small things open up big doors for us in life.

  5. ryoko861 Avatar

    I love finding new routes to bypass the busy ones. Map? Who needs a map?!

    Now, once the new bypass is in, will they shut down the old one?

    1. Jim Avatar

      I don’t do well just driving without knowing how I’m going to get wherever I’m going. Not sure why! The old bypass will remain open — too many businesses located on it.

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        I wouldn’t want to be on the planning board for that endeavor! All new signs are going have to be made. I can see alot of confusion surrounding this.

        I will admit if the sun isn’t out, I do have a problem with finding my way if I’m trying a new route. I use the sun as my guide sometimes. Going south, the sun will be on my left or in front of me.
        Want a challenge? Drive around Lancaster County in PA without a map. There are SO many 90 degree corners. You think you’re north? All of a sudden a sharp corner appears and now you’re going west! Makes the trip interesting. But you do come across some interesting little towns!

        1. Jim Avatar

          There’s talk of leaving the old bypass as US 31 so signs don’t have to be changed, and signing the new bypass as State Road 831 or something like that.

          I’ve driven in New Jersey and have found myself completely turned around on many occasions. Once I ended up in Perth Amboy and had no idea how I got there.

          1. ryoko861 Avatar

            There are numerous major highways in that area. The closer you get to the eastern shore of NJ, the more confusing it is. Driving towards Newark Airport is unbelievable!

  6. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I am old enough to remember the time before interstates. I am kinda amazed to look back on it that my parents didn’t go crazy taking long trips with four kids in the car on a two lane highway. Still once I got old enough to drive I generally prefer the two lanes. And since everyone is on the interstate now the traffic isn’t too bad.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I was born in the late 60s to parents who never went anywhere, so it wasn’t until the 1980s that I did any traveling of consequence on America’s roads. So all I’ve ever known is the Interstate era. Oh wait, I do remember one short vacation with my grandparents in 1976, but they “shunpiked” and we saw every back road, I swear, in Michigan along the lakeshore.

      That’s one thing we roadfans all say — we love the Interstates, because they make the two-lane highways a pleasure for the few of us who still use them.

  7. kodakkerouacs Avatar

    A bypass of a bypass! Surely you must be joking.

    I think your advice to us was wise…Valerie and I will probably avoid this on our trip. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Oh, I don’t joke about the road! If you go to Google Maps and turn on aerial imagery, you can see the new bypass being built. Glad you’re going to route around Kokomo. Lemme know if your trip takes you anywhere near Indianapolis; I’ll buy you coffee at least.

      1. kodakkerouacs Avatar

        When we’re heading back to Charlotte from Chicago we’ll be heading through Indianapolis, and we won’t turn down a cup of coffee. Shoot us an email with your info and we’ll catch up with you when we’re there!

  8. zorgor Avatar

    I find it ironic that the mistakes made of handling traffic through Kokomo are then ultimately a large cause of historic preservation of the Michigan road, through your efforts… :) Funny the trajectories our lives take.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Heh, you may be right there!

  9. sdaven5191 Avatar

    My grandparents bought a home in Kokomo back in the early 1960’s, when I was about 6. They moved there from a farm they had been running near Sharpsville. My Grandmother had tired of the rural life, which had been totally my Grandfather’s idea from the get-go, and they had moved there while my mother was still in grade school after WWII.

    That new move would be in 1963. It was in a housing addition I don’t recall the name of, (“Terrace Estates”? IDK) but it was a beautiful Bedford stone-faced ranch house on Terrace Drive, some behind Howard Community Hospital – or whatever they call it now, I don’t know. It had a beautiful stone fireplace with built-in bookcases on each side in the living room, wall to wall carpeting, a very modern kitchen with gorgeous cabinets, TWO bathrooms (imagine!) and the summer following this in 1964, they had Central Air installed. (I spent that summer with them after flying out on my own, at 7, from Virginia!)

    Anyway, their back yard was visible from “the Bypass” and at the end of their street was a home still on enough ground to keep horses! My dad and I walked down the road “to see the horses” and my grandmother had given me some sugar cubes to give the horse a little treat.

    This was Christmas time in 1963, when my mom and I and my brand new stepdad (of one month) had driven up there on mostly two lane highways, with the exception of a stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in a snowy late December to spend Christmas with my mother’s parents. It was definitely a two day trip back then, and I remember spending the night in a little motel in some place right off the Turnpike – in fact, you could still hear the turnpike traffic from the parking lot of the motel! It had a little restaurant in the parking lot, which was where we had breakfast the next morning, VERY early it seemed!

    Anyway, we walked down the road, slipping and sliding on the unplowed street, to the house where the horses were, and got permission to go visit the horses. I offered up my treat of sweet sugar lumps, in my outstretched hand, with my thumb extended out to the side. Apparently, the horse thought he had one more sugar lump coming than what I had brought with me, and took a bite of my thumb as well! I hollared and yelled, and danced around, trying to extricate my small thumb from between the horses big yellow teeth, and once it had finally been freed, my stepdad scooped me up and hurried back to my Grandparents. A quick examination by the various members of the family determined that a visit to the nearby hospital was in order “just to be sure that everything was OK.” We didn’t even have to leave the housing area, until we got to a back entrance to the hospital parking lot. My Grandpa drove us, and I sat in my stepdad’s lap.

    A visit to the ER was successful in determining that other than a few minor skin breaks, all was well. I got lots of attention, and I think even visits from staff members not involved in my care, in order to go see the little girl who got bit by the horse! My thumb all bandaged, and another sore place from a “just in case” tetanus shot, we drove back home, with Grandpa at the wheel of his big, cushy car, and me in somebody’s lap, since seat belts were more a nuisance at that time than a requirement!

    The day after Christmas, my Grandma, my mom and me went out shopping in Kokomo, to check out all the clearance sales. We went to some stores I don’t remember the location of, likely on Old 31, but they seemed to involve some nearby shopping centers, since no malls had been built yet. The traffic was crazy, of course, but my Grandmother, the Art teacher (and later in charge of the entire Art program for all of Kokomo’s schools) was no namby-pamby behind the wheel! She was a tiny woman, but didn’t let her size stop her from doing anything, including bossing my 6’3″ grandfather when she thought he needed it! I don’t remember what car we drove, but she maneuvered it in and out of traffic, and around parking lots like a pro – in the early 70’s when I was about 14, she bought herself a Mustang! – and we were back home again before dinnertime.

    The Bypass became a frequent topic of conversation while it was built and populated with retail establishments, and my husband and I actually ended up living there in the early 80’s, when he got a job transfer there from Lafayette, which is a long story that I will “bypass” myself right now.

    But, living just off the Bypass then was taking your life in your hands each time you got behind the wheel. The business he worked for was right ON the Bypass, in both its incarnations, first at one end of it right near Markland Mall, and the second a good bit south of there in what had been a car sales lot with a large building. So, it was damn near impossible to avoid that crowded highway no matter what we did!

    It had already earned the moniker of “Stoplight City” before then, and getting around was always a major challenge any time of day, but shift changes at Chrysler and the Delco plant directly across the highway from it were times to stay put and wait it out, rather than taking your life in your hands unnecessarily! For the uninitiated, those two major industries literally faced each other across the Bypass.

    Needless to say, we did a good bit of exploring while we were there, and learned how to get around as much as possible on the back streets, how to get to the stores at which we shopped with any regularity, and both Malls. But living in Kokomo then, at the height of Reganomics, was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and we were ecstatic to finally get out of there, and head South down 31 to Indianapolis, for a whole new adventure!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, you have quite some memories of Kokomo! Thank you for coming by to share them.

      I wrote this a long time ago now, before the new bypass of the bypass opened. The photo in this post is of a scene that my no longer exist!

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