George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

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