Freeways and Humans: Standard-State Interactions

Wolfgang Rougle

Writer’s comment: Professor Smith’s class “The Evolution of Five Northern California Environments” was largely concerned with how people interacted with and “belonged to” their natural surroundings. We all made “personal maps” of California. We went on a field trip to Village Homes and heard the term “place-based community” a lot. At Rush Ranch, a Delta wetlands wildlife sanctuary, we discussed the relative merits of different kinds of reeds and tules for homebuilding. So when we had a term paper to write and Professor Smith let it be known that he wished to see not only research but “personal responses” in our narrative, I decided to investigate a landscape feature to which I respond very personally: freeways. If modern people need to reclaim our connection to the natural landscape, we also need to build for ourselves a connection to the urban landscape of onramps and bridges and make it as suitable for human habitation as a wetland or a meadow.
—Wolfgang Rougle

Instructor’s comment: One of the aims of this Integrated Studies course was to “reinvent” our nearby surroundings in accordance with environmental and social sustainability. I asked students to form project “pods,” write individual papers, and integrate their conclusions into coherent group presentations. All of them co-created innovative, highly engaging projects.
         Wolfgang’s pod examined our current level of dependence on automobiles, and possible alternatives. They focused on Sacramento, experimenting with proposed reconfigurations of streets, footpaths, bikelanes, mass transit, and residential communities. Wolfgang decided to supplement her research with fieldwork—a walking-tour of freeways as an artificial landscape and habitat. The sheer originality of her observations required us to set aside our preconceptions regarding nearly every aspect of the freeway—from the endless parade of under-occupied vehicles to encampments of the homeless beneath an overpass or in the shadow of a cloverleaf.
—Michael Smith, American Studies Program

Act One: Architectural Cogeneration
         Today thrills are cheap and plentiful, available from the corner store twenty-four hours a “day” in the form of electronic pocket games, pornographic magazines, and sugar-saturated soft drinks, not to mention the array of black-market stimulants offered in the alley. But anyone in search of some good old-fashioned awe-induced paralysis need only take a moment to consider the American interstate highway system.
         Drowning entire valleys in a permanent roar, shedding over one million acre-feet of rainwater as polluted runoff each year,1 the interstate system alone is long enough to circle the planet twice. It is congealed money. It deprives light to enough soil to feed three-quarters of a million people. Its interchanges (diamond, figure-eight, cloverleaf, trumpet) spawn small communities based on industries unknown before the automobile: chain motels, truck palace gas stations with coin-operated showers and eternally lit diners, convenience stores selling nothing raw or unpreserved. In its indirect service labor hundreds of thousands of day-sleeping minimum-wage workers whose duty it is to care for the through-drivers; serving coffee, frying steaks, pumping gas. It normalized insomnia.
         At an expense of billions or trillions of dollars, the U.S. government built a vast system of public highways which serves only one fraction of the public, the group with cars. Animals are illegal on freeways. Farm machinery is illegal on freeways. Bicycles are illegal on freeways. Hitchhikers are illegal on freeways.
         There is one good reason for all these prohibitions, which is that freeways are incredibly dangerous places. Bicyclists and animals would be mangled and killed in such large numbers there that to fence them out is only humane. But this rationalization only points to a greater absurdity: the vast system of roads which engineers knowingly, even intentionally, built to be so dangerous that people are not allowed on them without a ton of protective steel. The speeds and distances of freeway travel make deadly accidents a daily occurrence there. There are six hundred and fifty square miles of public land in America where it is legal to drive at sixty miles and hour, but illegal to walk.
         No government agency should specialize in creating structures which work by being so dangerous that citizens must be fenced out. If the freeway system is to endure with any shred of legitimacy, some architectural cogeneration is in order.
         Just as chemists have agreed that a chemical is in its “standard state” if it is in pure form at a concentration of one mole per liter and a pressure of one atmosphere, perhaps we could come up with a human “standard state” for sociological use, a pure and basic state of humanity on which income, high velocity, armor and education level are merely reversible variations like temperature. I’ll start: a human is in her standard state when she is on foot and looking for a place to rest. With the intuition that, in society as in nature, every structure must serve more than one purpose, and with the conviction that public structures can and must be made useful to citizens in their standard states, bereft and free of equipment or speed, I set out on foot to tour the freeway interchanges of Sacramento.

Act Two: “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”
         The weather forecast on Friday, February 9, 2001, was for “rain” followed by “showers” followed by “rain.” It was a perfect inclement day, the kind of day that turns windshields opaque with cold vertical torrents, the kind of day when drivers forget what the world looks like without headlights. On such a day, closed and hurtling cars fill with condensation from the heater, clouding the windows with artificial breath. But pedestrians just exhale warm apparitions into the unwalled air.
         Disembarking, embarking, at 5th and Capitol Mall, I walked back west toward the towered bridge. Just west of 3rd, the city drops away in a vertiginous canyon containing I-5. Sheer twenty-foot walls unwelcome human beings even more unambiguously than the chain-link fence along the canyon rim. (In the fence, someone has labored tenderly with wirecutters to cut a five-foot doorway, its jagged wire edges pliered back into smoothness along the entire wavering circumference. I stepped through and followed a single- track path worn through the thick canyon-rim vinca, greeting some orange- slickered Caltrans trash workers (or rather shouting soundlessly at them and nodding with friendly incomprehension, due to the roar of the freeway and the mutter of the rain), until I arrived at L and 3rd.)
         It was in the middle of a long, unrepentant sequence of such rainy days, on foot in Vermont, when I first realized the preciousness of a roof. I had spent all my life until then either in towns and schools where I had some claim to a roof as a community member, or else as a respectable traveller who could duck unchallenged into a laundromat or café to dry out if a downpour hit. But suddenly, during what no one in the entire state could stop referring to as “the wettest spring on record,” I had weeks to travel with an allotment of one roof per day, the frame shelter placed every ten miles on the trail. Everything I owned was damp. My wet hair wrapped around my face as I slept, filling my dreams with the fragrance of mildew.
         Every day at about one p.m., after five or six hours of walking in the rain, I would find myself longing for a derelict picnic table, a cave, a tarp on sticks—any roof under which I could find a moment’s refuge from water. The idea of roofs, their elements and permutations, became my daylight fixation. Then I’d come to a town and realize that civilized places nowadays are practically plated with roofs no one is using, in the uninviting forms of freeway ramps, overpasses, and bridges. People need roofs; freeway overpasses are roofs. Problem solved!
         In theory, anyway. Back at civilization, my belongings arranged in an actual room that everyone considered my own, my mother enthusiastically sending me packages of shower curtains, soap, and index cards, which as she hopefully mentioned I might need some day, I set about devising a semipermanent structure which biv-ouackers could set up and care for by themselves. It would have to be light, difficult to destroy, “weatherproof” (that horrible modern word), and made of simple common materials.
         I settled on a yurtlike prototype made of tough fabric walls lashed into place at the top and staked into place at the bottom. The two major advantages of this design are its easy assembly, with the possibility of adding layers; and the fact that it is assembled, disassembled, or modified from the inside. Only residents and bivouackers, clambering on the broad inner wings of the steel I-beams, can take down the walls. Now my mission was to find sites for my shelter.
         The spaces under ramps at J and 3rd have already been put to fairly good use. Several of them harbor corrugated-cement parking structures, which I’m sorry to say the city will always need, and which also have interestingly surreal acoustic properties and could therefore be converted after the revolution into fireproof dance halls.
         One ramp shelters a garden of camellias, succulently thriving in the half-light and the evaporating urine. A path is worn through the leaves (but not the tough root-sinews) of the surrounding ivy. The camellia garden would almost be a rudimentary community space if:

a) the ivy could be replaced by some ground cover which is a less perfect rat habitat;
b) a series of sub-ramp community composting and pruning parties could be organized; and
c) anyone lived anywhere nearby.

         In Old Town I saw this sign:

Military Museum to the left
Parking to the right
Freeways to the left and right

and slipped through parking garage railings without a straight face, loping across Capitol Mall to the high deserted causeway of Front Street. The rain had intensified to a cold, liquid lashing, turning the construction sites into excavations of cold mud and ruined tarps. The roofsite outlook was bad; I-5 ran through the same deep canyon without margin or shelter, and bridges over the gorge fused with its smooth cement walls at ninety-degree angles.
         But Front Street, subject only to the occasional careen of a wayward car speeding back to the freeway, has broad clean sidewalks and a strip of landscaping softening the fenced canyon rim, planted in now-feral rosemary. Near O Street, under the graciously overarching (but now bare and dripping) branches of a tree, I found a large hollow in the rosemary, just invisible from Front Street. Someone had softened the hollow with newspaper, forming a pale cradle one night old. The only evidence of its former habitation was a sawed-off beer or cola can half-filled with mixed cigarette butts. In time and rain, the cradle would decay, but now, sheet-white in the rising flood, it was wide enough for two.
A Freeway Overpass, Front & Broadway

This bench under the I-beams is about two feet wide and could be easily widened with boards laid between the beams. Add some tarps for walls (although the dimensions of the overpass already provide at least twelve feet of bench space that stays dry even in driving rain) and some dense cypress or juniper trees for privacy, noise control, and simple human encouragement, and you have a shelter: overflow housing for rock concerts, anarchist convergences, hobo peregrinations, management conferences.
The I-5 Canyon

         Now, people say they can hate cars while they’re sitting in their cars in traffic. I’m sure it’s true, but I also know it’s impossible ever to hate cars as deeply and purely as when on foot, on the smashed-glass and creosote sandbar of a freeway shoulder. When you’re in a car, you can angrily compare a badly driven car with a well-behaved one; but when you’re not in a car, when you’re a standard-state animal out walking from one place to another, you can compare any car and a human. It will make you cry.
         Compare their steady, blinding headlights with the soulfully inconstant luminescence of human eyes, or the living waver and bob of red light flashed from a runner’s reflectors, or the intelligent sweep of a flashlight wielded by a person who is searching. Compare cars’ impervious steel bodies, and their consequent heedless headlong rushes, with the soft skin of human beings and the million small gentle reorientations a human body undertakes with respect to other nearby human beings, every day. Compare cars’ astonishing mass and momentum, their gracelessness unknown in nature, to the agility and hesitation of even the most awkward and inconsiderate human being. Most of all, compare their affectless, languageless bodies to the endlessly expressive human face and body, its postures and features never dumb, not even in sleep.
         Pedestrian fervor is rooted, dissolved, in an innate and insurmountable affection for life and living things, and distrust that approaches maniac hatred for everything else. This pale makeshift bed on the edge of the freeway lit up that love, and that loathing, in me, and I resolved again that someday the ramps and bridges and medians and roadbeds and barriers of the automobile age will be put to human use.

         I continued down Front Street, descending through the gravel lots and abandoned auto-body garages to about the latitude of U Street, where there’s a tidy cul-de-sac curling out toward the plait of freeways. The cul-de-sac was built to serve the locked gates of utilities buildings, and at its end, an unclandestine trail worn through the grass and detritus leads to a bower hollowed out of the lush, rasping oleander.
         On one side of the bower a chain-link fence reinforced with the coiling trunks of oleander forms a wall. The freeway is five feet away beyond the fence, but it is hardly visible. On the cul-de-sac side, the oleander bows over to touch the curb with its crown of green knives. In between, the living space is ten feet long and two or three feet wide, large enough to serve as the cache of all of someone’s possessions. Sturdy low cardboard boxes, of the kind in which hiking boots are sold, serve as a pallet, scattered and heaped with long-soaked clothes (mostly of the kind meant to be warm), old black garbage bags, and lots of trash.
         For a shelter relying entirely on flora for its structure, it was durable and private. Only fast-growing bamboo rivals oleander as a living wall. Oleander’s larger, less flimsy leaves make it a tempting choice on grounds of opacity and waterproofing, but oleander is also quite poisonous and therefore unsuited to any site where children or companion animals might be left unattended.

         The plait of freeways running along the western edge of Sacramento from O Street south to the Sacramento Southern Railroad is about one and three- quarters miles long and averages a quarter-mile in width. Most of that land is not actually used by the freeway—simply rendered unusable.
         Underneath the elevated highways, the worthless lots are lush with green grass. Some palms and sycamores, planted without inspiration in short, meaningless rows, are thriving toughly. Now what’s needed is a habitable People’s Park, with big stands of bamboo and juniper to soften the automobile roar, with wood sorrel and rosemary to scrub some of the tear-gas stench of idle engines out of the air, with protected space for gardens yes gardens, and with big true-sheltering evergreen trees.
         But this green broad fallowness won’t be fit for human habitation anytime soon, because of what’s hulking off-whitely across the street, behind a chain-link fence and a sign that says


WARNING: This Area Contains Chemicals
Known To The State of California to Cause Cancer,
Birth Defects Or Other Reproductive Harm

It’s the industrial yards of Chevron and 76, perfect examples of the modern city’s talent for placing facilities hostile to human life exactly where human life needs nurturing.
         I followed Front up a hill to a parking area, rarely used except by police and utility vehicles, and now deserted in the rain. At the base of the other side of the hill, lushly jumbled with weeds and refrigerator parts, lay an old railroad line, which disappeared into a big square tunnel cut through another embankment. The tunnel was closed off by Cyclone fencing, and even padlocked, but one segment had been completely cut through and rolled back. I descended the steep bank to investigate. As soon as I rounded the bank that led into the tunnel, I heard a sharp voice cry out deep inside. It sounded like the word “Ma’am!” I squinted into the darkness, waved my arms and called “Hello!” in a friendly voice. Finally I was able to make out a low swaying shape down by the opposite end of the tunnel. A woman was lying there, propped up asymmetrically on her elbows, swaying and moaning. She sounded hallucinatorily drunk. The phrase “sick as a dog” came to mind.
         I turned around and headed hastily back up to the street, this time climbing the grassy bank itself instead of the path. Any alarm I’d felt was soon displaced by the intriguing heft of the wet clumps of wild grass in my hands as I pulled myself up. Just at the end of my climb, as I bent under a tree at the edge of the parking lot, a grey-and-white kitten burst out in front of me and scampered for cover, followed startlingly by another, and then another! Then I saw, right in front of me, squarely in the path of my stumbling, their little house, obviously handmade, lovingly concealed in the brush. By staring in awe (never a bad strategy), I eventually realized that there were three separate houses there, each made of plywood, corrugated metal, and carpet remnants, and filled with clean and cared-for kittens. In the pouring rain, the kittens were dry and soft. They had food and water bowls, which were full. No one could have placed them there but the local homeless of the abandoned tunnel. It dawned on me that these ragged people, swaying vertiginously on whatever axes they were left with, were several orders of magnitude more capable of caring for living creatures than I was.

         Descending the hill, I turned east on Broadway and immediately found a beautiful shelter site. Big I-beams held up a living space between the overpass’ roadbed and the cement ledge of the retaining wall that anchored the roadbed to the hillside. I say a living space because the dimensions of this dim, steel-girdered emptiness cried out for human habitation. The wall’s upper ledge was already a couple-three feet wide, enough for a nap without anxiety of rolling over to one’s grisly manglement on the long corrugated-cement slope below. The niche was high enough for a tall man to sit up in without any feeling of confinement. The space was elevated above the cement slope (which itself set the wall back from the road by many relatively peaceful yards) by some feet (about eighteen inches on the far left, eleven feet on the far right), producing a sense of secure altitude for the sleeper. Most importantly, the I-beams provided a means of expanding the living space with planks, tarps, and hammocks. Boards could be laid across their broad feet to extend the sleeping area out toward the road, in privacy and elevation.
         My damp sketches and diagrams and estimations packed back into by notebooks, my steps would’ve turned toward downtown, where the city’s zoning documents must surely be stashed in the marble mausolea of the public libraries, had it not been for a lull in the traffic at 5th and W which allowed me to hear human voices under the 99/50/80 onramp. Still walking, I turned a casual forty-five degrees to my right to see three shaded figures discussing over shopping carts full of bottles and cans, and four or five more shapes slumped under blankets or on milk crates. Their home was divided from the sidewalk by a carpet of pathogenic-looking ivy, a few etiolated camellias, and that most enduringly up-to-code of walls, the neglect people have for one another.
         As I continued past, I wondered to myself how many drivers ever even noticed these people, sleeping and awakening, cooking and eating, constructing and repairing their homes and clothes, sharing their lives a few feet from the freeway bridges, all year long. I was on the other side of W Street before I thought: “Why am I here?”
         I whirled around with a hearty punch for the PRESS FOR WALK SIGNAL, skipped through the worn ivy with a friendly wave, and greeted a woolly-bearded man who was sorting recyclables in a shopping cart. The first thing he said was, “How can you walk around in this rain? Don’t you have no place to go?”

Act Three: I’m a Stigma
         Underneath the onramp the packed dirt was perfectly dry, and folks had built beds out of old mattresses and blankets, skillfully placed in the most concealed niche of the camellia stand. The salvage man showed me his own home, a low cabin made of pallets and cardboard, floored with big plates of styrofoam and strewn clothes and sleeping bags. On the roof were piled four or five extra sleeping bags, not for insulation, he explained, but, “Case someone come by or I meet someone who don’t have a bag of their own yet, I can just give ‘em one. Always want to have a couple extra just for that reason.” The pallets provided natural shelves both on the interior and exterior walls, which Salvage Man used to store jars of peanut butter, packets of spices and fast-food condiments, containers of shampoo and lotions and fragrances, combs and rolls of twine and so on. “How long have you been living here?” I asked him, marveling at the high level of organization. “’Bout two weeks,” he replied. “Looks like I been living here a year, huh?” He laughed. “Well, them, they can live like that—” gesturing at the figures slumbering huddled on the mattresses—“but I got to have something over my head, I got to be comfortable. At least until CalTrans come through here again and tear it all down. Which they do every couple months anyhow. Come through here in their orange reflecting vests so the drivers don’t mistake ‘em for us, they come and shake your house and shout, ‘Anybody here?’ and if you ain’t, then down it comes.”
         “What would you think if these places under ramps, not just here but all over Sac, could be made into actual shelters, not buildings really but like semipermanent shelters that would be a little weatherproof and give you some privacy?” All I needed from him was a thoughtful nod, and we were expounding for the next two hours, no detail of architecture or social economy, we hoped to heaven, escaping our consideration.
         “See how it would work,” I rushed on, “is we’d have these double walls, something durable but not too heavy for the interior and exterior, with some kind of insulating layer in between. We would stake them into the ground on the inside, and at the top, also on the inside, the walls would be lashed to holes or loops soldered onto the bottom of the I-beams. I was thinking about how to generate a little bit of power, and a car whooshing by up there creates at least a twenty-mile-an-hour wind, right, if it’s going fifty or sixty which it is, God knows, and most wind turbines perform best at 28 mph.2 You could just mount a wind turbine on the railing of the offramp and use that wind power. And there’s already water piped out here”—I pointed at some black sprinklers among the ivy—”because God forbid that so-called landscaping should suffer any thirst. Anyway the thing is everybody living underneath here would take care of it, keep it clean and in good repair, and anybody stopping by could stay the night, it wouldn’t be official or anything like that, folks would work stuff out among themselves, which is how it already works anyway. Do you think people would be willing to take care of a place like that?”
         “Sure they would,” nodded Salvage Man, and his friend Simuran concurred matter-of-factly, seated on an overturned five-gallon bucket by the wall. “But you don’t understand this town,” Simuran went on. “This is not a loving town. They don’t open things, they close down things. Even the bathrooms in the parks close at night now, and during the day you can’t go anyplace either. On a rainy day like this, for example.”
         “The city’s built buildings it ain’t even using,” Salvage Man said. “New office buildings, old office buildings, all over the city. On cold rainy days like this, the city could open ‘em. We used to have a place called the Poverty Resistance Center, down by the river, it was open from seven, eight a.m. until five. They had a library you could get books from, you could do your laundry, take a shower, they had like a lounge area you could sit in and watch TV. Someplace to go. Now the only place is Loaves and Fishes.”
         “It’s the last place they haven’t closed down,” said Simuran. “They’d like to, but it’s run by the Catholics and they’re a big group, so they won’t get shut down. I think they’re open from seven to two-thirty. You know,” he added with a sigh, “it’s great that you’re interested in us out here, your organization, or is it just you? But nobody in this town’s gonna lift a finger to help you. ‘Cause how are we gonna contribute back to the economy? You’re not a human being round here unless you’re contributing back to the economy. It’s a financial thing. This whole area’s getting ready to boom.”
         “How’m I gonna get a job if I can’t take a shower every day?” said Salvage Man. “How’m I gonna get a job if I don’t have transportation. But housing is the main thing. If you don’t have a house, people just scared, people just cold.” He smiled. “Know what they give you down 29th and R at the welfare office? And then they tell you you gotta pay it back when you get back on your feet? Two hundred bucks a month. Now what are you gonna go rent?” We all laughed. “Every time I go down the street I hear all these poplocks, pop pop pop, people lockin’ their car doors,” Salvage Man went on. “You know what, lady?” he shouted at an imaginary driver: “I don’t want your car! Matter of fact I rather have a old Schwinn bicycle, you know what I mean!”

         Which brings me to a topic too long overlooked: the possible benefits drivers could enjoy from a healthy population of sub-onramp dwellers who did not constantly fear for the destruction of their makeshift shelters. In addition to giving directions to lost motorists, shelter people could provide emergency care and company to automobile accident victims at onramps, underpasses, and intersections. (If you were to drive your car into a telephone pole, would you prefer to do it in front of a rain-addled mattress dweller who thinks you’ll turn him in to his creditors if he approaches you, or in front of a well-rested individual with the poise, responsibility, and human dignity of someone with a home?)
         “Just this morning,” said Salvage Man, “I saw a woman drive her SUV up on that embankment right there. It was raining like it is now and I guess she just lost control of her vehicle. I could have run over there and helped, maybe, like if she needed some basic first aid or some water or just to calm her down. But you know, the world’s been so cold, you think, is this my business or is this their business. Some black homeless person rushing over, she’ll think I just want her purse, her valuables, which was laying on the ground there. There’s a whole stigma going down. I’m a stigma. So I didn’t do nothing.
         “Well, some other driver, I don’t know about these cell phones but sometimes I’m grateful for ‘em, he stopped and I guess he called for some help for her, on his cell phone. But you know, it’s the same thing day after day. When an old lady falls down at the supermarket. Do I help her up? Way I look? Only thing people see is, He’s standing over her.”

Act Four: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now
         In old England, whence America inherited a good deal of its legal foundations, the King’s Highway was “not a strip of land or any corporeal thing, but a legal and customary right; a perpetual right of passage for the Sovereign and his subjects over another’s land” (Webb and Webb 5). In other words, the highway was the legal embodiment of a deeper belief that all citizens had a right to traverse the country to which they belonged. In 1926, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed this belief in an opinion that called a highway “a public way for the use of the public in general for passage, without distinction” (quoted in Netherton 4).
         But America has become a nation obsessed with property, with the right of exclusion in all its subtle and barbarous forms. This is a nation which is said to “consume” more than one hundred thousand tons of barbed wire annually (Netz 15). And the obsession with property, with having a legal rather than a natural right to use a resource, has shaped the notion of “restricted access” (and therefore the design of the entire U.S. freeway system) more strongly and more subtly than any other American paradigm. But while it feels most natural to speak up only for those shut out of the freeway system, perhaps the greater (and certainly the more populous) tragedy belongs to those who are shut in.
         When you build a fence around your property, you are asserting not only that there’s someplace that belongs to you, but that there’s someplace that doesn’t. Many people claim that the great mistake of Western civilization lies in thinking that the earth can “belong to” a person. This is supposed to have led to slaughtering all the buffalo, poisoning the rivers, and so on. But it seems to me that, actually, no one who has been integrated into Western civilization thinks that the earth can belong to him, at all. Western civilization, with its private automobiles and its country clubs, its volumes of “limited-access” code and its hundreds of thousands of tons of barbed wire, is a huge sad and desperate attempt to take the land by force, since, it is assumed, it can never belong to us naturally, nor we to it.
         And what if America’s hundred savviest land speculators woke up tomorrow in strange hotel rooms on business trips to cities they had never before visited, looked out the window to see rivers and mountains whose names and suggested retail value they did not know, and felt at home? What if ten thousand of the West’s private landowners travelled tomorrow to the edge of their property, stepped over the barbed wire into their neighbor’s holdings, and felt not a sense of trespassing but of belonging? What if ten million American drivers stepped out of their cars onto the road tomorrow during one of the traffic jams becoming ever more frequent even on “limited-access” throughways, and decided to feel as comforted standing on the surface of the earth as driving on it?
         What if you felt that the planet, with its air and water and living silicate skin, was your birthright and belonged to you in proportion to your love and reverence for it? What if you felt just as much at home on land owned by an Australian strip mining company as you do on your own block? (What if you felt as much at home with threadbare strangers under a freeway onramp as you do with your own family?)
         Then any kind of “limited access” would seem absurd. The bottom would fall out of the barbed-wire market, I can tell you that much. In Texas and in Greenland, in your kitchen and in your office building, a joyful voice would whisper to your heart, “You live here! You are home now!” So take the advice of the beltway billboards, advertising new office space close to houses or new houses close to office space: put the soles of your reverent feet on the surface of the earth, put the palm of your reverent hand on the shoulder of a stranger, and kiss that long commute goodbye.

End Notes

1 Forest defense groups often point out that the combined length of the nation’s logging roads is eight times the length of the interstate highway system (“Timber Roads”). So I divided the distance covered by logging roads, 377,000 miles, by eight to get an interstate mileage estimate of 47,125 miles. I assumed an average freeway width of 4 lanes roadway plus the equivalent of 2 lanes shoulder and divider space, at 12 feet of width per lane (I lay down twice in one lane and had ten inches to spare). This means that an area of 642 square miles of American public land is paved as interstate. I multiplied that number by 640 acres per square mile, and a U.S. average of 36 inches of rainfall per year (Actually, it’s more like 30 (Times Atlas), but I weighted it for the wetter East, where the most freeway pavement is). The final estimate for annual interstate highway runoff is 1,233,818 acre-feet.

2 Models manufactured by AIR for residential power generation can produce more than 150 kilowatt-hours per month at an average wind speed of 20 m.p.h., while WHISPER’s models produce between 250 and 375 kWh at that speed (“AIR 403” and “WHISPER H80 and H40”).

Works Cited

“AIR 403.” Promotional brochure.

Netherton, Ross D. Control of Highway Access. Madison: UP Wisconsin, 1963.

Netz, Reviel. “Barbed Wire,” Harper’s, February 2001.

---. “Timber Roads and the Bryan Agreement,” (27 January 2001)

The Times Atlas of the World, 9th comprehensive ed., Random House, 1992.

Webb, Sidney and Beatrice. English Local Government. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1913.

“WHISPER H80 and H40.” Promotional brochure.