My Old Girl on the Prairie

For the wannabe poets of the university, the journey back to their parents’ cushy Dallas suburbs provides infuriatingly little by means of choice or of vistas. There’s one road, the one everyone loves to hate, that funnels them out of the Forty Acres and spits them out in the Metroplex, passing by the unremarkable towns of Central Texas.


Luckily for me, though, is that I was never blessed with any sort of literary inclination, and so my gripes with the unavoidable Interstate 35 have been exclusively tied down to the material world. Most days, the lessons learned in empty parking lots — to check my mirrors, to keep my eyes on the road — have me focused on the rumbling of the concrete road. Some days the rural monotony of the landscape blends together so seamlessly that the only indication you’ve made any progress is the green little county line marker – Now Entering Ellis, Hill, McLennan, Falls, Bell, Williamson, and finally, Travis County.


But when my number was called up – Welcome, Class of 2021! – you could scarcely see a thing at all on that highway. As we descended down that seemingly perpetually-unfinished road, the sky dimmed, like a stage before the show begins. In place of a spotlight, however, the clouds tumbled out water, a cold, wet warning to turn back. Not an option, unfortunately, but as the rain continued to pound angrily on the car rooves, the laws of traffic heeded the sky’s advice, if only partially, slowing us to a crawl that would elicit the honks of even the most patient driver. The rain made the four-hour journey feel like forty days and nights — would our little ark on wheels survive?


Just turn back the car, I pleaded to no one in particular.


We’d make it, of course, but the tempest followed us to Austin. Was the storm the foreboding mise-en-scène for my moving-in — nay, my entire university experience? Was the cloudy Cassandra running alongside us down I-35, screaming at me to turn back before it’s too late, to return to the comfort of the suburban cradle?


Oh well.


Baby Highway 35 was born in June 1959, to loving parents Dwight Eisenhower and Oklahoma City. Coincidentally, the fledgling I-35 connected Oklahoma City south to the students of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, a twenty-three-mile long umbilical cord. It wasn’t until 1971 that the highway was finished throughout Oklahoma. She was a late bloomer, as she quickly expanded and merged with smaller roads to complete the transnational highway by the late 70s.

As I-35 settled into her final length, she traded her Farrah Fawcett feathered locks for the big hair of the 1980s, and her once-small traffic demand now exploded, as did the metropolitan areas she connected. Folks from faraway places like Minnesota could now measure the duration of their drives in hours rather than days, as if their road maps were suddenly folded over in a terrestrial wormhole, breaking the centuries-long national divide between north and south. And those living not so far away, in towns like Ennis, Belton, and Georgetown suddenly found themselves remarkably connected to larger cities, unaware of the seismic economic and cultural change about to happen.


Dallas-Fort Worth grew over by three-quarters of a million people between 1970 and 1980, and another full million in the next decade. Austin grew from a small metro of a quarter million people to double that by the dawn of the 90s. I-35 stood at the ready, eager to accommodate the growing cities’ needs, juggling long-haul trucks, tourists and future Texans.


But as the breakneck growth of the state continued into the 90s, the government began to worry about I-35’s ability to keep up with increasing demand. Their evidence? A report published in 1996 showed that traffic rates grew throughout the rural sections of I-35 by about 5 or more percent a year for the past decade. And if such growth kept up – at a modest 4%, let’s say – then


“[…] a trip from San Antonio to Dallas, which took approximately 4.5 hours in 1972, will require 8 hours by the year 2006,”


It seemed like everyone was fixing to come to Texas. But even with expansion of the interstate to six lanes, massive parts of the highway would drop to an average speed of around 30 miles per hour – or worse – by 2016, as there would be too much traffic to ever be able to accommodate. The predictors of doom warned – much like that storm – of a never-ending nightmare for motorists, trapped on the Central Texas prairies, which could be avoided only by massive investments. Expand the lanes! Put up tolls! Build some railroads!


But the slow-moving machinations of state and federal government meant more time was spent twiddling thumbs and trading favors than funding solutions. Conspiracy theories swirled, warning that improvements would be steppingstones to transforming I-35, our hometown gal, into a NAFTA international superhighway, linking Mexico to Canada, accusing her of acting as a stalking horse for a North American union. Suddenly the uniting force of the interstate was turned on its head, her existence itself being a tool of divisiveness for grand ideological battles between nationalism and globalism.


Yet here we are, twenty years later, well into the predicted apocalyptic future. Doomsday predictions haven’t come to light just yet – and most of the frustrating traffic that is to be found is in the urban areas, not the rural. I-35 is now over 40, and like many of us, feeling the pressure to grasp onto her fleeting youth with whatever power she’s got. Her frequent cosmetic surgeries, however, seem to do more harm than good – interrupting traffic flow for weeks, slowing motorists down to a crawl. Maybe that’s what those prophets of the 90s meant when they predicted that nightmarish landscape but felt it uncouth to speak of a lady highway’s age in mixed company.


For those of us with two feet instead of four wheels, I-35 also provides a boundary. She splits Austin into East and West, joining the Colorado River to similarly bifurcate the city. A city newspaper, the Chronicle, nicknamed her the “scar of the city.” But a scar implies healing, that the damage has been done and recovery underway. For many, it is still the open wound of the city. The highway hugs the eastern border of campus, a six-lane sign encouraging us to stay west.


And yes — west of I-35 you’d find the Austin of magazines and websites. It’s got all the well-kept parks, skyrocketing rents, and the beautiful people that (for some) are sure signs of success. The story of East Austin, however, has been a case study in environmental discrimination, an exemplar failure of urban planning. The folks of East Austin have been left behind by their wealthier, healthier neighbors: their per capita income is half of the rest of the city’s, they are three times more likely to live in poverty, their schools lag behind in quality and are more likely to be closed down. The worst part? It’s no accident.


In its early life as city, Austin was not formally segregated. But by the early 20th century Jim Crow laws forced Austin’s black residents to move east as schools, parks, and other city services west of East Avenue became white-only. Through the New Deal, federal mortgage redlining programs boxed off East Austin as a designated black neighborhood. And the construction of I-35 over the former East Avenue turned the red line into a visible, physical symbol of segregation.


This history is uncomfortable for most of those in power; well-meaning Westside advocates cross underneath the interstate and turn into white saviors as they treat East Austin as a peculiar anomaly — that programs meant to tackle issues with health, poverty, and education failed because of “cultural differences”, that the neighborhood is an embarrassment to the fast pace of the rest of the city, that it’s not “real Austin” — when in reality it’s those very differences that have been so central to the development of Austin as a whole.


I-35 herself wasn’t responsible for the division of the city. Yet it is ironic that a road which has been so crucial to connecting Austin to its suburbs, fellow Texas cities, and the rest of the country has become the symbol of separation, the bookfold of a tale of two cities.


Of course, Interstate 35 stretches out much further than just these two termini – it extends right across the heartland of America, from a bridge connecting Mexico to Laredo, Texas, to an undramatic, and rather underwhelming, T-intersection in Duluth, Minnesota, which I imagine is a frozen hellscape of ice, flannel and passive-aggressiveness.


But despite all of its length and the destination-worthy sights along its spine, I-35 provides so little to see or do in its most-traversed segment. The memories I make – or fail to – in my now-frequent journeys between Austin and Dallas leave me begging for highway hypnosis. The open road is a cold comfort.


Perhaps that great storm that followed me as on my move-in day wasn’t foreboding much of anything. It was a cleansing rain, washing away the unneeded — nay, unwanted —remnants of childhood. I-35 puts distance between the cradle of home and the crucible of college, but she also provides access. That’s all anyone could ever want – a balance of independence and safety, of friends and family, of exciting new experiences and reliably lovable old ones. Just three and a half hours on the open road, she whispers, and you’ll be back to comfort.

About the Author

For Emil Shabanov, to write is to disappear into one’s self. And so, he’d rather be lost at sea right now.