The concept of The West is as much a part of the DNA of the United States of America as apple pie and baseball. When the Union's predecessors arrived here from Europe, a massive continent, unknown and mysterious, sprawled out before them to the west. Long after the geographic extent of this country was shorn of its mystery by the quest for the Northwest Passage, Lewis and Clark's intrepid expedition, and the rapacious forces of Manifest Destiny, the allure of The West remained a siren's call for many.
At first, it was the enticement of material wealth and prosperity in the form of animal pelts or mineral excavation. In the isolation concocted by its difficult terrain and unforgiving environment was the answer for those seeking freedom to practice unorthodox religions, or perhaps just those craving the illusion of evading the snare of the government. Later, it was clung to as the source of salvation from the smoky, claustrophobic hell of the industrial metropolises and from the inhospitable, barren hell of the Dust Bowl. The completion of the transcontinental rail lines, followed by the rise of the automobile, made The West accessible in ways that were once inconceivable. Anyone who wanted a new life could simply uproot themselves and strike out for The West. Even today, it seduces as the wide open land of the big sky, a haven for rugged individuality . . . or as the land of left-coast social tolerance and cutting-edge entrepreneurialism.
I, myself did not realize how deeply The West resonates within me until volunteering to help a special lady move from northeastern Ohio back to her family home in El Paso, Texas, after our college commencement. Unfurling a road map to begin the planning process for that trip, it dawned on me for the first time what an open book this country truly could be. Ever since then, the unspoken power of The West has imprisoned me in its vise-like grip. It's always just a bit further. One more hour of daylight. One more turn I've never made before. It's this power that is responsible for the uncontrollable urge I get every time I hit the road to return home to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., a journey I've come to undertake several times a month.
It starts with the spirit of the road itself - Interstate 70, a 2,153-mile superhighway that begins in Baltimore and terminates in Utah and serves as a crucial connection between Southern California and the entire Midwest and Northeast. For much of its course, I-70 is intertwined with U.S. Route 40, which itself was one of the original coast-to-coast routes laid out in the 1926 U.S. Highway System Plan. This particular portion of the I-70/U.S. 40 corridor closely hugs the footprints of a series of late-18th-century turnpikes that stretched from the teeming port of Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland, where travelers could then embark upon the National Road.
One of the country's very first efforts, powered by federal funding and oversight, to create a cohesive, long-distance transportation trail, the goal of the National Road was to ensure a standard of relatively easy mobility between the industrial and economic centers of the Mid-Atlantic and the croplands of the Midwest, traversing the tricky Appalachian Mountains in the process. Running from Cumberland to Vandalia, Illinois, this was the first road of such length to be completely surfaced using the newfangled Macadam technique, which would in short order come to be regarded as the state of the art standard for road construction. Thus it can be said that these easternmost miles of I-70 essentially represent the very cradle of our attempts as a nation to provide simple, comfortable access to The West.
Then there are the green guide signs that alert drivers to utilize I-68, which splits from I-70 at Hancock, in that little pinch of land wedged between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as an "Alternate Route West." Maryland's Highway Administration has erected the signs as a ploy to keep people south of the Mason-Dixon Line for as long as possible and in doing so, hopefully trickling some much needed dollar bills into the coffers of the businesses and communities of the state's downtrodden westernmost counties. To me, though, the signs serve as another reminder - as if I need one - that the ultimate purpose of this road's existence is to get people from here, in the East, to way over there, in The West, through the amber waves of grain and across the purple mountain majesties.
In any case, I had long taken to incorporating I-68 into my commute, a habit formed when I finally reached the point that I could no longer bear the mind-numbing grind of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It helps that, as far as controlled-access hypnoroads go, I-68 is actually a rather enjoyable drive, thanks in large part to lower traffic volumes, lovely ridge-and-valley Appalachian scenery, and an absence of tolls, to say nothing of the far more frequent exits and with them, the ability to jump on and off the highway whenever I want, enabling me to explore local towns and attractions at will and patronize commercial ventures that weren't just hatched out of a prefabricated big box. Where the Turnpike feels like a chore, a monotonous countdown of mile markers until I arrive at my destination and no further, 68 has the totally opposite effect of sparking a sense of being part of something truly grand and fueling the desire to discover just what that something is. It engenders the notion that this land, even after all these generations, is still an unfinished story waiting to be told.
Finally, there's the fact that, because of the timing of my trips, I often find myself rumbling along I-68 as the day is waning. The sun reclines into the western sky, casting its pastel hues over the glades and hollows of the Maryland Panhandle, and I am drawn into its canvas, beckoned to follow it over the horizon. I want to succumb, riding into each day's sunset until I can't anymore. I am called to Go West, Young Man, chasing the light like so many before me towards a new tomorrow, a new beginning, full of new hope. To be clear, for me, it is not merely some escapist fantasy, not born of any explicit yearning to live Out West; no, it is the same compulsion that impassioned George Mallory to vanquish the world's most daunting natural wonder. It is to just go. Because it's there. And every time, there's a good five-Mississippi count during which I swear I actually consider doing it.
But then the adult neurons fire. Irresponsibility is bludgeoned and the impulse is wrested from me, leaving just an odd burning sensation in my gut (not wholly unlike the feeling you get after narrowly averting an accident of some kind). As I brood, auto-pilot kicks in and forces me to take the appropriate exit into Cumberland. Like always, I'm not going West, I'm going home. Maybe one of these days I'll get used to it.