HOULTON, Me. — A mile of interstate highway is 9,000 cubic yards of chewing-gum colored concrete, striped with 1,000 gallons of paint that reflects like cat's-eyes in the dark.
Take Interstate 95, which stretches 1,836 miles from the Canadian border at this northern Maine potato town to Miami and blue-green Biscayne Bay.
Without a closer look it can seem just a couple of double lanes, long and gray and mute.
And yet this road speaks: Road signs are in French where it begins, Spanish where it ends. At the top, one points "Aux Etats-Unis"--To the United States.
Along its miles and miles, Yankee country changes tune to Dixie; New York, Philadelphia and other industrial centers and old ports give way to the little tobacco farms of North Carolina. Paper-white birch woods in New England become the sensuous wetland plains of coastal Georgia. Ringing Washington, D.C., it's the Beltway, beyond which, in the bureaucrat's geography, lies "real-life" America.
I-95 travels a path of history, following a colonial mail route at some northern points and touching what was called the King's Road in Florida. Near Lexington, Mass., a plaque within earshot of the oblivious traffic marks where Paul Revere's ride was ended by a picket of English troops.
After a drive from its start to its finish, it's clear this is both an artery giving life to legitimate commerce and a "cocaine lane" watched by 15 states' troopers. It's a route home to tearful retirees and runaways. It's been a landing strip, a laboratory, a morgue and even a place to be born.
"A highway is a dynamic thing," Federal Highway Administrator Ray Barnhart said in an interview in his Washington office. "It changes with society."
There are longer roads; there may be more scenic ones. But I-95, arguably the busiest link in the 30-year-old interstate system, may come as close as any to being Everyroad, illustrating how much more a highway is than so much aggregate rock and Portland cement.
That message becomes manifest within the first mile or so, at Houlton.
In the star-pocked blackness of 2 a.m., a glow pulsed on a ridge a mile off to the west from I-95. It was a trailer on fire.
It stood adjacent to Wilbur and Gladys Estabrook's house, where they and their grandson were sleeping. The flames would consume the trailer, which belonged to their daughter, and scorch the walls of the house. But a drowsy passerby veered off the highway and raised the alarm.
'We'd Have Been Burned'
In the Estabrooks' kitchen, over the scratchy repartee of a police scanner that the family listens to for entertainment, Wilbur talked about the close call. "If it hadn't been for 95," he said, "we'd have been burned."
The highway wasn't always there, of course. Houlton people used to fish in a big frog pond where I-95 is now.
"We went up there when they were cutting the right of way," Gladys Estabrook said, shaking her head as she remembered the tree stumps everywhere. "You couldn't comprehend it."
At the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service checkpoint, Floyd Munroe still can't understand. At the border, he watches a young moose that hangs around what's left of the swamp, he watches Canadians enter Maine, and he watches Americans pass the other way.
He said the roadway planners' decision to locate I-95's northern terminus just halfway up the Maine-New Brunswick border, instead of at the northernmost point in the state, "was a real boondoggle." Making the crossing farther north, he said, would have kept travelers in the United States a little longer, long enough to buy lunch, say, or stay in a motel.
"That cost those towns north of here money," he said.
Munroe sighed, then leaned into the window of a recreational vehicle whose windshield bore the hot-breath clouds of two coffee mugs on the dashboard and whose bundled-up occupants were headed for a vacation in warm South Carolina.
'Like the Birds'
Climbing aboard, Munroe glanced in the refrigerator, found what he expected--nothing amiss--and waved the couple on their way as he and other agents do with 500 to 1,000 cars a day. "They're like the birds, the snowbirds. They go where it's warm."
Sometimes, Munroe said, they're heading for retirement far down I-95, and at the border they cry.
The downstream run toward Florida starts through rocky Maine farmland where the schoolkids get a potato-harvesting vacation, then through a corridor of birches that glow at sunset, over the brooding Argyle peat bog and finally past the myriad outlet shops.
Then it's out of Maine, via the Piscatauqua River bridge, which gives a gull's-eye view of the 17th Century seaport town of Portsmouth, N.H.