Road trips, Stories told

Avoiding Kokomo

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


20 thoughts on “Avoiding Kokomo

  1. Dani says:

    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.


  2. dennyg says:

    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?


    • 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.


  3. hmunro says:

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


  4. ryoko861 says:

    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?


    • 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.


      • ryoko861 says:

        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!


        • 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.


        • ryoko861 says:

          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!


  5. 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.


    • 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.


    • 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.


      • 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!


  6. 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.


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