For most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys. This is true, Professor Christopher Wells argues, because the United States is Car Country—a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often even unsafe to navigate by those who are not sitting behind the wheel of a car.

Below is an excerpt from his new book, Car Country.

book: car countryThe Paths Out of Town

Consider two places. First, it is 1928, and you are suspended midair above Ford’s River Rouge factory on the edge of Dearborn, Michigan. It spreads before you, a vast complex of buildings–more than you can easily count–and bristles with belching smokestacks. A dense network of tracks interlaces the facility, which is built tight against the curving bank of the river. A long, perfectly straight slip protrudes from the river into the facility, paralleling a series of buildings on one side and giant rectangular bins on the other. Enormous piles of materials, which range widely in color and consistency, fill the bins. Huge scoops unload a ship’s cargo, transferring it via a huge horizontal crane into one of the bins. Is that sand? Dirt? Crushed rock? From this distance it is hard to say. 

Second: It is 1934, and you are in the Modoc National Forest in northeastern California, twenty or thirty miles from the Oregon and Nevada borders. Mount Shasta rises from the high plains to the west. You are with a Civilian Conservation Corps crew based in Hackamore, which pauses for a moment to take a picture. Some of the workers sweat through their shirts, others are shirtless, and everyone wears work boots. They are building a road. They perch atop two pieces of heavy equipment, one with caterpillar treads, the other with scrapers and rollers for finer grading work. Conifers rise behind them, but the foreground is a raw cut in the earth, as yet ungraded. Who are these men, and why are they building this particular road?

Places such as these add detail and texture to our understanding of the many ways that the physical work of building Car Country transformed the American landscape during the interwar years. The first car-oriented landscapes and the self-fueling system of rising traffic, fuel consumption, and road construction were both significant yet still account for only a subset of Car Country’s environmental consequences. Manufacturing cars and building roads–especially on the scale required to make driving a standard part of American life–entailed rearranging diverse ecosystems on a massive scale. Peering into Ford’s vast material bins along the Rouge River and making sense of young men collecting government paychecks to build roads in remote forests allows us to follow what one environmental historian has called “the paths out of town”–and thereby to see the connections between what was happening in these places and the powerful forces transforming the rest of the nation.

Both the auto and road-construction industries had a voracious appetite for raw materials, the demand for which remade the often distant ecosystems where the originated. Both generated pollution and rearranged the ecosystems they inhabited, prompting ecological changes that were at once both intensely localized and widely dispersed. Both created new divisions–and forged new connections–in the American landscape. And, together, both created an unprecedented new mobility that put growing numbers of people in close contact with “nature”–or at least the beautiful, green, romanticized version of it as a place of therapeutic retreat from the modern world. Along these paths out of town, both literal and metaphorical, the United States began to refashion itself as Car Country during the interwar decades.

Courtesy of the University of Washington Press

July 29 2013

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