Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Rise of the Highway Buffs, aka 'Road Geeks'

FSA photo by John Vachon. Kansas-Nebraska border.
Whether you call us “highway buffs” or “road geeks,” our numbers are growing.
There may never be as many of us as there are “railroad buffs.” And certainly, we won’t rival the Civil War buffs, but we need to be recognized with our own category of fanaticism.
What is a “buff?”
I recall this snippet of dialogue from a classic Seinfeld episode:

GEORGE: Wow, Keith Hernandez! He’s such a great player.

JERRY: Yeah, he’s a real smart guy too. He’s a Civil War buff.

GEORGE: I’d love to be a Civil War buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?

JERRY: …Well sleeping less than 18 hours a day would be a start. defines a “buff” as “a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject.”
I’m a highway buff and proud of it.
What exactly is a highway buff then? Well, I’m not the arbiter of such things, but to me it is a person who prefers traveling two-lane highways, and/or studying the history of old motor vehicle trails that pre-dated them.
We like looking at pictures of old gas stations, motels and diners, and imagining (in my case) or remembering for the older generation, what the country looked like about when Jack Kerourac was hitchhiking his way West during the trip that inspired his novel, On the Road.
A highway buff can be a person who simply enjoys savoring a drive down the back roads of America. For us, driving on an Interstate is like being forced to walk in a park while wearing a ball and chain. We want to pull over and take in the scenery, or stop at some backwoods barbecue whenever we damn well feel like it. A federal shield sign beckons us to leave the drudgery of driving four-lane Interstates.
We can also be students of highway history. In 1926, the federal highway system was created, and the distinct shield signs began popping up along the roads. Prior to then, there were some 250 motor trails— local and national—crisscrossing the nation. This was not long ago when one considers the course of human history. But today, much of the knowledge of where these first highways traversed has already been lost. 
The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road, then came the Bankhead, which took a more southerly route. The Old Dixie Trail, Yellowstone Trail, Lee Highway, the National Road are just a few of them.
The Lincoln just celebrated its centennial last year, with highway buffs, or Lincoln Highway Buffs, making the trip. The Bankhead’s 100th anniversary is coming up in 2016. Attempting to locate, or retracing, the paths of these old trails is a favorite activity of highway buffs.
I am a devotee of Highway 83. I have found references to a Great Plains Highway that was near it in South Dakota and Nebraska, but I know little else about it. I know there must be an old map out there somewhere. I will search for my remaining days.
No highway has the cachet of Route 66, though. There are dozens of Facebook pages devoted to it, some with tens of thousands of members. Travelers from as far away as Japan and Europe plan whole vacations around road trips retracing its original path. It has been featured in books, TV and documentaries.
Highway buffs may go so far as collecting, too. Check out the prices for old federal shield-style highway signs on eBay. They don’t come cheap. And signs that marked those old pre-1926 motor trails. Too rich for my blood!
The members of Facebook pages devoted to the Lincoln, Bankhead, U.S. Route 83 are minuscule compared to Route 66, but numbers are growing. Here are links to a few pages I have joined:

Backroads in general:
Specific Highways:

There’s no need to start a rivalry with other “buffs.” Railroad history and highway history go hand in hand. Many of the small towns you can explore on your travels owe their existence to the railroads.  The development of the rails and the highways made this country what it is today. Old West buffs, Civil War buffs: we all love U.S. history and the best way to explore the sites are on the backroads.
And embrace the Harley buffs. Some of the biggest supporters of backroads over Interstates are motorcyclists. The same goes with the lovers of classic cars.
I don’t have any statistics to prove that we are growing other than the proliferation of pages and members on Facebook. Those in the tourism industry, who are trying to lure travelers to their small towns and less traveled states need to take note, though.
So the next time you’re at a party, or some other social gathering, proudly say, “I’m a bit of a highway buff.”
Spread the message:
Half the fun is getting there.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, now available at in paperback, or Kindle eReaders. To learn how to order signed copies, message him at stewmag (a)

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