Meet US 40, the most dangerous highway in Indiana.
Waiiiiit…. it looks pretty harmless, actually. Like a pleasant Sunday-afternoon drive.
But there was a time when it had the most traffic fatalities per mile in the state. That time was 1967. Here’s proof from an Indianapolis newspaper, probably The Indianapolis News.
It’s hard to imagine now that US 40 was ever busy enough to be that dangerous. Today, when it’s busy along its original path it’s only because of local traffic in the cities. My church, for example, is steps off old US 40 on Indianapolis’s Near Westside, and at 5 pm on a weekday it’s challenging to turn left onto our street from this road.
But I-70 hadn’t opened yet when this article was written. Years ago I was interviewed for an article in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star about US 40’s importance in that city. The reporter spoke to people who owned businesses along US 40, and one of them recounted that the day I-70 opened, traffic immediately slowed to a trickle as if “someone had closed a faucet.”
All of that traffic has been on I-70 ever since. And the traffic has done nothing but get heavier year over year. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’ve driven the US 40/I-70 corridor a lot over the last 30 years.
It’s probably no surprise that I prefer driving US 40. I take I-70 only when time is of the essence — its 70 mph speed limit gets me there a lot faster than US 40’s 55 mph limit. But US 40 is so much more pleasant to drive. I always arrive far less stressed when I take US 40.
I’ve been in correspondence with Roger Green, who grew up on US 40 in Harmony, a tiny town near Brazil in western Indiana. He’s embarking on his own US 40/National Road exploratory journey and is learning as much as he can about the road. His Google searches led him here. Roger shared the newspaper clipping above with me, as well as clear memories of accidents in front of his house in those days:
Yes, US 40 with all its glory had a sad side with many accidents. We were so glad when I-70 opened to relieve the traffic as it was getting difficult for us to pull out of our driveway. We had so many accidents near our house that our response became routine. We would be watching TV and hear screeching tires and then the crash. Mother would go directly to the phone and call the sheriff and dad would run out the front door to see what he could do to help the injured. Part of the problem was a speed transition which started in front of our house with 65 MPH dropping to 45 MPH if coming from the east. Many people just didn’t slow down. Added to that were all of the cross roads and private driveways adjoining the road and you had the recipe.
I stopped in Harmony on my last tour of this road, which was in 2009. Hard to believe it was that long ago now. I am overdue for another tour. Much is sure to have changed.
US 40 boasts many tiny towns across western Indiana, but few of them have as much going on as Harmony. There’s still a “there” there.
Harmony’s side streets are narrow and its buildings often have shallow setbacks from the highway. It looks like it might still be challenging sometimes to turn safely onto US 40. Indeed, on the day I visited this corner street sign had met its fate under a car’s wheels.
Margaret and I wanted a good, long hike through the woods on our last full day in Ireland’s County Galway. We drove to Connemara National Park figuring that’s what we’d get.
We were wrong. The park’s trail system runs right up the side of a mountain. We started to hike it, but we soon overheated in the direct sunshine of that unusually warm day. We had dressed warmly, for cool, clammy, shaded woods. Margaret told me that if we kept hiking, she’d end up nauseated from being too hot, and she didn’t want that. So, reluctantly, we left.
But what to do with the rest of our day? We remembered passing through a charming little town on our way to the park. We decided to go back there, have lunch, and figure out plan B.
Clifden is Connemara’s largest town, and a popular tourist destination. As Irish towns go, it’s pretty young, as it was founded in the 1810s. It did very well until the potato famine in 1845. As across all of Ireland, Clifden and its people stuggled hard.
Recovery was slow. The opening of a railway to Galway helped bring tourists. Then in 1905, Marconi built his first transatlantic telegraphy station south of town, employing as many as 200 to operate it.
With those steps forward came steps back. Violence during the Irish War of Independence in 1920-21 saw several of Clifden’s buildings burned; the Civil War of 1922 saw railway bridges destroyed.
Since then Clifden has been peaceful and prosperous. Tourism is the town’s chief industry. Everything was cheerful and welcoming on the day we stopped, as you’d expect in a tourist town, but the streets weren’t crowded as the season had passed. We stopped for lunch in this tavern.
It was a relaxing lunch, and we lingered. Over Irish whiskey (Powers Signature Pot Still, which was delicious), we decided we’d just spend the rest of our day in leisurely exploration of this little town.
You’ve probably heard at least the first line of this old Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
I can’t emphasize enough how happy we were to have rented a car. It gave us full control over our itinerary — and more than once let the road to rise up to meet us. This was probably the most notable time. It turned a disappointment into a distinct joy.
We strolled Clifden’s streets, admiring the architecture. We looked in shop windows, we walked into shops for a browse. We looked at jewelry, we looked at tweed. We stopped for coffee. Margaret saw how much I admired a particular tweed jacket, so she encouraged me to go back and try it on. They didn’t have one in my size, but another shop had an even nicer jacket that fit me beautifully. Margaret encouraged me to buy it. It broke our budget, but I’ll enjoy the jacket for years to come.
I wished aloud that we had booked a room here for our four days in County Galway. The B&B we chose was lovely, so no regrets. But if we ever return to Ireland, I want to be sure to return here and stay awhile.
We wanted to fully control our itinerary in Ireland. So no packaged tours for us: we decided what we wanted to see, no matter how far off the beaten path — or to go nowhere, if we felt like it. So we rented a car and drove it all over Ireland wherever our noses led us.
We’d do it again. But we learned some important stuff along the way.
1. Rent the smallest car you think will fit you and your stuff.
The roads are narrow and curvy. You will have an easier time maneuvering them in the smallest car you can get away with.
When we rented the car online before the trip, we asked for a mid-sized car. In Ireland, that’s a Toyota Corolla. But on the ground in Ireland, the rental agency didn’t honor our reservation. Starting over, our only choice was a tiny, dumpy-looking Nissan Note. We were over a barrel so we took it.
I’m glad it happened, because as I’ll explain below, more than once a bigger car would have certainly resulted in a fender bender.
Along the way, Margaret met a group of four American women who had rented a minivan. Both side mirrors dangled forlornly from the front doors. They broke one in a parking lot trying to maneuver out of a tight space, and the other against a roadside stone wall trying to get out of the way of a large oncoming vehicle.
We had some stunning good luck in a couple very tight situations, but we returned our little car without a scratch.
2. If you can’t drive a stickshift, be sure to specifically request an automatic from the rental company.
Most people in Ireland drive stick, so most rental cars are manually shifted. Fortunately, both Margaret and I enjoy shifting our own gears.
We saved a bundle renting a stick, by the way. The rental agencies have few automatics and they cost a lot more.
3. Be prepared for the driving to exhaust you, especially at first.
Driving in Ireland is very involved. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, shifting with the wrong hand. My brain worked overtime in overcoming the strong urge to return to the “proper” side of the road and even to return my body to the “proper” side of the lane, and also in having to think about driving moves that, back home, would be automatic. Fortunately, after a couple days it started to feel more natural.
I think it must be Irish statute that no road run straight for more than thirty meters. And except for the Interstate-like motorways, many highways and almost all rural roads are narrow with no shoulders. The road’s edge was often bordered by a stone wall — or a steep dropoff. I needed to be extra alert at all times.
And especially on rural roads we noticed fewer signs preparing drivers for hazards. A whole series of tight curves can appear with little or no warning. And because bus tours are popular, many, many, many times we entered a blind curve to meet a bus going the other way, wheels over the center line. We moved left as far as we dared and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we always squeaked by, thanks to being in a tiny car.
One last surprise: outside of cities, sheep are everywhere. You may round a curve and suddenly have to brake hard for a sheep blithely grazing roadside grass, his hind end well into the roadway.
4. Try not to drive in the large cities.
This isn’t to say you should limit driving to the country. We did fine in the smaller towns and villages. Some of that driving was a little tricky, such as where parked cars narrowed even a major highway to one lane and everybody has to take turns getting through. But with focus and patience, it was all doable.
But driving in Galway, one of Ireland’s larger cities, was hard. We picked up our rental car in Galway on the day we arrived in Ireland, after a long flight to Dublin and a train ride to Galway. We were tired. And then our first driving experience was on roads going every which way and all choked with traffic.
I figured driving in Galway would be easier when I was better rested. So we went back one afternoon to explore the shopping district. Nope — it was the hardest driving of the trip, harder than the moment on the 1½ lane rural road where we passed a giant RV with less than an inch separating us.
In the city center, tightly packed cars moved fast on streets that ran at odd angles to each other. It was disorienting. I knew where we wanted to go, and like a true American I figured we could just drive right up to it. No dice. Not only could we not figure out how to navigate to it, even when we could see it in the distance there wasn’t any place to park within a mile of it. We ended up circling around for quite some time before finding a shopping mall’s garage. We gave up, parked inside, and walked from there.
And then getting out of town involved blind turns across oncoming traffic and a one-lane road that accepted two-way traffic where a big Audi sedan refused to back out of our way. Four-letter words may have passed by my lips in that standoff.
By the time we got out of town I needed a stiff drink and a long nap.
A bus connected our B&B’s town to Galway, running every 30 minutes. We should have taken it instead.
5. GPS is a godsend when you can get it, so take your smart phone — you might get a good enough signal.
We discovered right away that Irish roads can be poorly signed. Major highways are generally signed well, but city streets and rural roads frequently aren’t signed at all. It often made paper maps and written directions useless.
So we got out our phones and tried the GPS. My iPhone is on Sprint. Before the trip, I signed up for a free addition to my plan that gives me unlimited free 2G data outside the US. It worked surprisingly well. I got a signal in even most of the remotest places that was good enough for GPS to keep working. Once in a while we were remote enough that my iPhone switched to general packet radio service (GPRS) and kept tracking and telling us where to turn. None of this cost me a cent.
The mobile signal was frequently too weak to find a destination, however. I took to using hotel or cafe wi-fi to punch it in and start navigation, and then going out to the car and starting the trip.
On the other hand, Margaret’s Android phone on a budget carrier had spotty coverage. Google Maps wouldn’t work half the time.
GPS was spot on 95% of the time. Sometimes it told us we’d reached our destination a little too early or a little too late, but we could see the destination so it didn’t matter. Once, however, while trying to find one of Margaret’s distant cousins in a remote part of County Galway, GPS took us five miles beyond and deposited us on this desolate one-lane road. “You have arrived at your destination,” indeed.
Fortunately, everybody knows everybody in the boonies. We found a house; Margaret knocked on the door. The fellow who answered gave us great directions right to the house we had been looking for.
6. Share the driving.
Margaret kept calling out wonderful things she was seeing from the passenger’s seat, things I couldn’t look at because I was busy navigating a series of curves, or braking to avoid a sheep, or inching my way around a bus.
And then Margaret asked if she could drive one day. And happily I was the one calling out the passing scenery.
Such scenery! And I arrived at our destinations less tired. So whenever she said she wanted to drive, I handed her the keys with a smile.
7. But do drive in Ireland.
It sounded dreadful to both Margaret and me to be cooped up on a tour bus with strangers, not being able to decide for ourselves where we wanted to go and how long we wanted to stay there. And no tour bus would ever take us to the remote island in western Galway where Margaret’s distant cousin lived. Renting a car gave us freedom.
More than once, we just pulled over for an unscheduled stop to explore a town or photograph a vista.
Oh! but the views! While we lingered near this hairpin turn, several tour buses crept by, their passengers gawking out the window for as long as they could before the bus swept them away.
We, on the other hand, stayed here for as long as we wanted. That, my friends, is vacation.
My favorite time to practice mindfulness is when I have a camera in my hands. I do break the rule about not judging thoughts and feelings, as I need that judgment to compose a pleasing photo. But everything else about photography is quiet and meditative for me.
This practice really helps me keep calm and not make mountains out of molehills. The benefits of mindfulness are clear for all. It can reduce anxiety and depression. It can help manage anger. It can even help people recover from addiction.
I don’t think I’ve experienced any of this harm. I’ve certainly not panicked while practicing!
But aren’t there some useful things to do with this present moment that might not involve being present in this moment? Such as dreaming about the future? Planning for good things to come? Looking forward to what might be? I’ve surely been doing a lot of that as I anticipate my future with my new wife. We are, after all, getting married tomorrow!
Dreaming is a fine thing to do in this present moment. Just not while you’re driving.
My youngest son just got his learner’s permit, so I want to retell this story from 2009 of me getting my driver’s license.
My friends had all had their driver’s licenses for a couple years when I finally got mine. My dad had given me some driving lessons but wasn’t very motivated about it, and my pestering seemed only to further delay him. So on the day I turned 18, the day the BMV considered me an adult and no longer required a parent to sign a financial responsibility agreement, I drove to the license branch and took the test, Dad be darned. The photo on my first driver’s license showed me with the goofiest grin – of relief at finally being licensed, and of devilish anticipation of my dad finding the license waiting on the dining room table for him to see when he came home from work. Take that, Dad! You wouldn’t handle it, so I did.
But dang, that embarrassing goofy grin. I never told my friends I got my driver’s license; I didn’t want them to see! This was the 80s, back when people still wrote checks to pay for things at the store, and I hated to show my license to cashiers. I still had that license when I turned 21 and started hitting the bars in college; bartenders smirked. So when that license expired, I resolved not to smile for my new license photo. I’ve kept that practice since.
Now Indiana won’t let you smile for your license photo. The BMV has introduced face-recognition software to help them prevent fraudsters from getting more than one license. Smiles, along with glasses, hats, and scarves, can fool the software and so are banned.
Such license fraud is not far-fetched. In 1994 I went into the Terre Haute license branch to renew my license, and the clerk said, “Mr. Grey, the computer says you renewed your license at the Lawrence branch last month.” Say what? It turns out someone had successfully impersonated me and was driving around on a license with my name and number but their picture.
I drove on an expired license and compulsively checked my credit and police records for three months while the BMV struggled to sort out the mess. I kept pestering them until my plight found someone with real authority at the BMV’s main office. She authorized an entirely new driver’s license number for me and put an alert on my old record that the license was fraudulent. “If the police pull the guy over for speeding,” she said, “he’ll find himself in handcuffs!”
I was lucky; my credit did not get torched and the sheriff did not appear at my door because of something my impostor did. There was an upside for me, though. The BMV’s computer couldn’t transfer my driving record to my new license, which made two speeding tickets disappear. Poof!
Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.
Grandma and Grandpa retired to a small lake, or rather a big pond, among the cornfields and hog farms in southwest Michigan. It was my favorite place in the world to go. Sitting in the gazebo overlooking the lake, staying up too late listening to stories of the Great Depression, and just running around here and there in Grandma’s big Chevy Blazer; it was a relaxed life. When we were out, we inevitably ended up at a bar for lunch. I guess in 1970s Michigan it wasn’t any big deal for children to go into bars, because I surely spent a lot of time in them.
We usually visited The Inn Between, a little joint on the highway at the end of their gravel road, “in between” two villages that highway linked. It was dim inside, with square tables with laminate woodgrain tops, brown padded stackable chairs, a wooden bar with a handful of stools, PBR and Budweiser signs on the walls, a jukebox in the corner. There was a menu, there was beer, there was probably whiskey but I didn’t know much about such things when I was that young.
Everybody at the Inn Between knew my grandparents. They’d walk up to say hello as we sat, calling them George and Kath-ern, which apparently is how Kathryn is pronounced in Michigan farm country. A fellow who must have run the place always came over to chat and take our order. My brother and I would order cheeseburgers, and I always got orange Crush, which in my earliest memories still had real orange pulp in it. The fellow would tease my brother and I a little, asking us if we’d like to try the frog legs instead. Our chorus of “ick, ew!” always made the fellow smile, at least until Grandma finally said, “You should try them. They’re delicious.” So we did, and they were, and we ate them often.
The Inn Between was on the same lake my grandparents lived on, so sometimes we’d motor over there for dinner on their little pontoon boat. We’d linger. Grandma and Grandpa would chat with the other customers, mostly neighbors, all friends. Grandma made sure our red plastic tumblers were always full of icy Coke, and fed us quarters for the jukebox.
In those days, country music was crossing over to the pop charts, and the jukebox was loaded with those songs. It’s where I first heard Olivia Newton-John and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I played them all, but I liked Glen Campbell the best. I played “Galveston” and “Country Boy” but leaned extra heavy on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Everybody drinking their beer at the Inn Between must have been glad when we left so they didn’t have to hear it again.
But really, I have always favored the sad songs, and so my favorite Glen Campbell song is “Wichita Lineman.” And I have a bonus memory of my dad around this song. I couldn’t have been 10 yet. We sat in dad’s white Matador in the shopping-center parking lot waiting for Mom to come out of the store. The AM radio played the local music station. This song came on, and Dad sang the chorus low, mostly to himself. Dad can carry a tune. And I sing this song when my iPhone serves it up in my car, too, doing my best to channel Glenn Campbell. But I belt it right out, because it feels so good.