United States Route 31. If you have ever driven from Indianapolis to northern Indiana and Michigan or vice versa you know this road. The same can be said all the way down to Mobile, but it’s this particular stretch I want to focus on. It’s like most other U.S. Routes cutting across the country, long stretches of open highway interrupted by the occasional sleepy small town. They’re remnants of how we used to navigate this country, long before gigantic interstates sped travelers along their way bypassing the sights and magic of Small Town USA for the convenience of sterilized closed access thoroughfares. But US 31 is unlike any of these other US Routes. Yes, they are all made of the same materials and serve the same purpose but no other has a special place in my heart.
Now if you’ve ever traversed this particular highway, specifically the stretch between Indianapolis and South Bend, you know this road isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In fact it’s a rather frustrating stretch of highway. The drive is brutally boring with nothing but flat farmland to keep you company for most of the trip. The speed limits are too low and the cops too willing to enforce them. At one point a stretch of the road was a testing site for highway maintenance which simply meant it was the bumpiest, most uneven stretch of highway ever. And then there’s Kokomo. I assume when AC/DC wrote “Highway to Hell” they were referring to the stretch of US 31 through Kokomo with roughly 1000 stop lights in 8 miles. It’s so bad that construction is taking place to build a bypass around the route, which itself was originally a bypass. So, yes, US 31 does not seem like it should be a road fondly remembered. The funny thing is it’s a road where you have to look back upon your journeys to appreciate its meaning.
It is a road that connects my past and present, a link between my first home in northern Indiana and my second home in Indianapolis. It was my route to leave the small town and grow up in the big city, always there for me though if I needed to return home. It’s now the road back as I begin the next chapter in my career.
I’ve driven the route hundreds of times over the years. I know its nuances and subtleties so intimately that I often used to read while heading back and forth. There’s the Chick-Fil-A where the road joins US 20 south of South Bend, perfectly located to taunt me on Sundays when I would drive back to college after spending the weekend at home. There’s the curve where I saw an eighteen-wheeler lose two of its tires while driving, one skittering across the median and popping high into the air as it scaled the slope, nearly missing oncoming traffic, the other crashing through a farmer’s fence and sending splintered wooden projectiles everywhere. There was the time we got an awful snowstorm and I was heading north, stuck behind a single line of traffic. My impatience got the best of me and I decided to have a go at the unplowed left lane everyone else was avoiding, white knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I immediately regretted my decision but knew there was no turning back (I made it through just fine).
Even when I’ve been far from home it’s been right by my side. I remember marveling at how it followed I-65 as my family would journey south on vacation, amazed that this road that was so familiar to me extended all the way to Alabama. I’ve been to both the northern terminus in Mackinaw City, Michigan and the southern in Spanish Fort, Alabama. As I checked into my hotel room in Birmingham on my first business trip, there it was mere steps away. I could leave the Midwest but reminders of the Midwest wouldn’t leave me.
As my journey has come full circle and I’ve moved back north I’ll miss the frequent trips on the road. Construction is taking place to upgrade sections to Interstate grade, rerouting certain areas and closing off others. I’m sure that within the next decade or so the whole section will be shiny new interstate. Part of me will miss the nearly three hours of uninterrupted time with my wife and my dog, the frustrating speed traps that are La Paz and Lakeville, the views as it dips into a valley to connect with US 24, the farmers’ fields, the weird little store in Nead with all sorts of strange statues for sale, the closed down Eat Here and Get Gas restaurant/gas station combo, the apple orchard we always talk about visiting but never have. I might even miss those overeager cops (probably not) but I will not miss Kokomo’s stoplights, not in the least bit.