Bursting the nostalgia bubble: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

My new book has been out for a week and a half now and I’m surprised and thrilled with the response so far. If you’ve picked up a copy, thank you!

If you’d like a copy of my book, get one here:

I want to share one more story from my book. In the first several years after I was newly single it was a great distraction from my troubles to spend a fair-weather Saturday seeing where an old road would take me. I still love the old roads today, and it’s led to a broader interest in transportation history.

I had this vision of days gone by, people driving these old highways at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view.

One day I got to meet Paul Ford, a legend in Terre Haute radio. In his retirement, he and his wife operated a set of Christian radio stations along US 40 between Terre Haute and Casey, Illinois. We talked about radio a little bit, but we also talked about US 40 itself. His tales of how dangerous this road had been opened my eyes!

This story first appeared here on January 25, 2008.

My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the National Road (US 40) in Illinois. The state built modern US 40 alongside an older brick and concrete road โ€“ and abandoned the old road.

Abandoned National Road
Paul Ford’s house and radio studio, in sight of the abandoned highway

As we explored the abandoned road, Michael asked me what drew me to the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”

Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.

Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.

I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People would get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”

I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.

As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way from eastern states into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s brick and concrete construction. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first โ€“ because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!

Abandoned National Road
Michael on a rough patch of the old road

But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars โ€“ for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers could travel much faster and safer. They undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back.

Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life โ€“ a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old roads.

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12 responses to “Bursting the nostalgia bubble: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

  1. J P Avatar

    Maybe it was because both my mother and grandmother were nurses, but I grew up hearing about how dangerous the old 2 lane highways had been. I don’t ever recall either of them opting for one if a modern interstate highway was available.

    What a great time it must have been to visit with Paul.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Now I take the 2 lanes as much as I reasonably can because all the traffic is on the Interstate!

      Paul is a character. He’s still alive, I believe, but his wife passed away this year and he shut his stations down.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Paul Ford’s story of the dangerousness of the old US40 reminds me of a similar story from the Milwaukee x-urbs. When we first moved to Milwaukee from Chicago, there was actually a three lane highway north of the city, old Highway 57, that ran from Milwaukee to the Door County peninsula. My Dad was in the insurance business, so he quickly learned all the problem areas of the state and this was one of them! It was referred to as the “suicide highway”. Until I-43 was built, this was the only way to get to your cabin up on the peninsula.

    The “three-lane” was sort of an experiment, but probably mostly an “experiment in terror”. The thinking was that the center lane was supposed to be a passing lane, but there were so many blind curves and blind hills, that this resulted in people using the center lane running headlong into each other at 65 miles an hour! Horrible, horrible accidents, which practically no one survived. On top of this, the road was crisscrossed by farm access roads and rural two-laners, which again, on blind areas of the road, resulted in people entering the highway at 10-20 miles an hour, while traffic was coming over a hill or around a curve at 65 miles an hour! Not good!

    The third layer of madness on this was that at the time, Wisconsin’s drinking age varied by county. Milwaukee’s age was 21, and the surrounding counties were 18! There were dozens of drinking road-houses for 18 year olds, in the immediate area, including many catering to the 18 to 20 year old crowd, north of Milwaukee on old 57. This resulted in drunk 18 year olds careening down the three lane highway, at closing time, with the resultant accidents, and deaths, easy to understand.

    All this cleared up with the change of the drinking age to 18 state wide (now 21), and the completion of I-43. To your point, though, old 57 is still a very fine and nostalgic drive, past old antique shop barns and other road-side features for motorists pre I-43, and a great way to spend a Sunday. You still have to watch out for the slow traffic entering the highway though!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      States experimented with all sorts of ways to manage traffic flow before the advent of the freeway. Most of them were not very good.

  3. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    US 27 was the main N/S route up the middle of Michigan. My Dad grew up a few miles off of it in the ’30s-’50s and his story was that on Summer holiday weekends you just didn’t go places that required crossing the highway.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Especially in the prosperous postwar years, as the number of cars on the road skyrocketed, our highway system became increasingly insufficient. I’m sure everyone who was alive in that era has similar stories to tell!

  4. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    Fascinating. Congratulations on your book success!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you!

  5. Jan Avatar

    Your article reminded me of many, many drives to and from Terre Haute along US40 before I-70. We made the trip at least once a week and your friend Paul was correct. There were many dangerous places even on “new” 40 where there were “dips” where a car/truck could hide. Very dangerous road to pass on. We now drive it occasionally while there is much less traffic.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That is the great thing about any two-lane supplanted by an Interstate — there’s so little traffic on it. It’s why I drive 40 to Terre Haute (from Indy) when I need to go there. So peaceful.

  6. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I remember taking long trips with my parents on these roads. It really could be an ordeal in the more heavily populated areas. Out West, however many times you could travel for miles without seeing another car. I do remember that most people couldn’t wait for the interstates to open,

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I came of age in the Interstate era; I don’t remember a time without them. Funny how I don’t enjoy them and seek out the old roads instead. But then, those roads aren’t choked with traffic as they were before the Interstates!

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