Eisenhower Spoiled Me – An American Driving Abroad

New Zealand Roads

For a few decades I somehow avoided driving abroad. The thought intimidated me; foreign signs, unknown rules and in some countries left hand side driving. This year I had a few opportunities to drive abroad, and I soon realized that President Eisenhower made me lazy.

In 1956, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, a piece of legislation that changed the face of the United States in every sense. The bill was championed by President Eisenhower, who witnessed firsthand the military attributes of the Autobahn while serving as the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II.

The American highway system took 35 years to build, comprises more than 46,000 miles of roads and cost about half a trillion dollars. The effects of a national roads system have at times been controversial, but undeniable. What I had never realized before was that as a driver, this national system had completely and utterly spoiled me.

Driving along the interstate, one expects certain things. More than anything, one expects fast food restaurants and bathrooms at certain intervals. It may seem like a small thing, but it has become ingrained into our driving culture and is something which I had completely taken for granted, until I drove in New Zealand and Australia.

The difference between driving systems became apparent during a day trip from Melbourne to visit two sites: Healesville Sanctuary and Phillip Island. Australia has a national highway system, as do many other countries, but it’s not as comprehensive as the American system. I can travel to just about any destination in the US via interstate or one of its offshoots, the same cannot be said in Australia. Traveling from Healesville to Phillip Island, we expected some sort of major road to connect the two, on which we would find desperately needed restaurants and bathrooms. Instead, we were met with a series of backroads that just seemed wrong to us. Instead of a well traveled route with plenty of conveniences, we drove through neighborhoods with not one restaurant in sight.

I thought it was our error, that we had confused the directions, but no. That was truly the best way to get from point A-B. We eventually passed through a small improbably named town, Koo Wee Rup, where we found a pizza place for lunch. During the meal, it hit me how spoiled I was. I had come to expect certain conveniences when I drive somewhere and was completely thrown by the lack of them in other Western countries. I then began to think about how I would never stop in a town like Koo Wee Rup in the US, there would have been a rest stop in its place, ensuring I never leave the interstate and venture out into the real world.

Ultimately, for all its conveniences, that’s what the American highway system has cost us  – the ability to get out and discover everything that is unusual and quirky about our country. Instead of intrepid explorers, some of us have become lazy drivers looking for the next McDonalds instead of the next adventure. I can tell you one thing though, I enjoyed stopping in hamlets like Koo Wee Rup, Cowes and Hari Hari a lot more than my quick stop at Chesapeake House on I-95.

What do you think? Has the U.S. lost some of its quirkiness because of our massive highway system?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

8 thoughts on “Eisenhower Spoiled Me – An American Driving Abroad”

  1. Interesting post! I do think we may have lost something in the process of having the highways the way we do. And I can imagine that it would feel odd to not have certain things available, etc. I am American, of course, so I can relate.

    Have you been to New Mexico? I think that a tiny bit of the quirkiness, etc. you mention might be there….

  2. I feel a bit spoiled by the road system in Spain as well. It’s laid out pretty intelligently, and rather than fast-food restaurants, every gas station has a cafeteria where you can get reliably good bocadillos (my preference: jamon and manchego cheese) and often homemade food. It’s a different kind of road trip, but efficient nonetheless. I’d take my Spanish cafeterias over American fast-food chains any day!

  3. This really makes me appreciate what we have here in the US. I admit I am nervous about driving as well. I have never driven outside of the US – I’ve always used public transportation. So admittedly, I had no idea things were like this in other countries. This opened my eyes to driving in other places and it just makes me appreciate what we have here in the US even more.

  4. To avoid highways whenever possible is definitely something my Dad instilled in me. On all our family trips, whether a couple hours away or across the country, he always made sure we took the backroads. I always thank him for that too, because some of our best memories were made that way. It makes the trip just as memorable as the destination.

  5. I’d be lying if I didn’t say how much I love the US Interstate system, but I also make a special effort each road trip to spend as much time on backroads as possible. On my recent California trip, before getting to San Francisco on Day 10 of the trip, I drove 2,200 miles and only 15 of it were on interstates. I took longer, but I saw so much more.

  6. I will never forget my terror of having to drive the LA freeways – by myself, before God invented the GPS, trying to work out what lane to be in long enough before the intersections, remembering to stay right, remembering NOT to change gears (1st time I’d driven a automatic) Then I heard about random drive by shootings – on the freeway!

    Actually I would count the Australian roads are quite good on the east coast and the mains cities – but as a Kiwi I know how bad roads in a so-called 1st world country can be!

    Though I must say I’ve never gone hungry, particularly in NZ – perhaps you were looking for a restaurant when you should have been looking for the pub or coffee shop – both of which provide food at all hours in Oz and NZ?

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