The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

1 January 2006

Ode to a road

What's the most famous road in America?

Right you are. But Route 66 is less than a pale shadow of itself these days, more memory than actual roadway, and the remaining drivable sections of it are slowly, sometimes not slowly, being reincarnated as tourist traps.

That leaves the crown to the New Jersey Turnpike, a supersized ribbon of asphalt and angst that bisects the Garden State, the subject of a six-page tribute by David Holzman in the February issue of Car and Driver.

I first drove the Turnpike in 2001. Having only just finished a vaguely-similar road in Pennsylvania, I was filled with trepidation: C/D's own Brock Yates had once described the Turnpike as the American equivalent of MiG Alley, and, well, I'm no fighter pilot. It took only a few miles, though, for me to realize that if I were going to get into trouble, it would be caused by some nimrod with out-of-state plates: someone like, um, me.

Holzman's piece doesn't romanticize the Turnpike, but neither does it complain: the article, like the Turnpike itself, simply is, and in true Jersey fashion, it doesn't much concern itself with your reaction. The usual names are checked, from Bruce Springsteen to the Barista of Bloomfield Avenue, and there are the obligatory mentions of the delicate scent of sulfur dioxide and Paul Simon's whine about counting the cars with Kathy. But what matters here is the road, and whether you think it's the nexus of American despair or simply the least-complicated way from Point A to Point B, last year motorists and truckers rolled up more than six billion miles and paid $440 million in tolls.

The Interstate system, which wasn't even on the drawing boards when the New Jersey Turnpike was built, was intended as a reasonable facsimile of the German autobahnen. The Turnpike never had any such international ambitions: it's as American as apple pie and more so, lately, than Chevrolet. Houston architect R. Gregory Turner explains:

The turnpike is a swaggering giant that plows through the industrial heartland of the East Coast, overpowering even the mighty landscape of refineries, airports, and tank farms that have the temerity to get in its path. It is a muscular 12 lanes wide, formed of masses of concrete, steel, and asphalt. It is not a subtle roadway, it is straightforward; indeed, it is virtually straight! Its beauty is in its simplicity.

Mr Turner, I should point out, used to live near Exit 9.

And for a lot of us, when we think of New Jersey, we don't necessarily think of the Boss, the corruption, the chemicals, The Sopranos, or even the Shore; we think of the New Jersey Turnpike, and we wonder if we're going to run into beach traffic.

Posted at 6:18 PM to Driver's Seat

TrackBack: 10:40 PM, 2 January 2006
» I’ve been everywhere from The Gleeson Bloglomerate
Yesterday, Charles Hill made the unsupportable assertion that with the exception of Route 66, the New Jersey Turnpike was “the most famous road in America.” You may participate in that debate over on But I wanted to show you......[read more]

The first time I drove on the Turnpike I almost lost my mind. Nobody makes any pretense of going the speed limit (although I hate speed limits), so you have to hold your own.

The refineries, etc., at least keep you awake. From exit 7 on down, heading south, you go through a mind-numbingly boring stretch of road with no distinguishing characteristics. No landmarks. It's not pretty, it's not ugly, it's just blah.

But if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it.

Posted by: miriam at 7:31 PM on 1 January 2006

The New Jersey Turnpike is the next "most famous road" after Rte. 66!? I disagree. Name one top-40 song that even mentions the New Jersey Turnpike.

Right. Now admit that Lake Shore Drive is a better candidate.

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 9:40 PM on 1 January 2006

I can't imagine you'd run into beach traffic on the NJT, but you definitely might on the Garden State Parkway or the Atlantic City Expressway.

Lake Shore Drive doesn't count -- it's a street within a city, not a road. The only top 40 song I can think of that mentions a highway or road other than US 66 is Born to Run, which mentions US 9.

Posted by: Michael Bates at 11:26 PM on 1 January 2006

We had a bridge collapse the other day. Drive on our roads, and traffic should be the least of your concerns. Fortunately, the boys in charge have sprung into action: Our new Governor is raising the gasoline tax. Considering our recent success in building new schools (long story short: the money mysteriously vansihed) our highways will remain only marginally less risky than betting the mortgage money at Atlantic City.

You got a problem with that, Okie-boy?

Posted by: Mister Snitch! at 12:29 AM on 2 January 2006

This should settle it. The official U.S.D.O.T.F.H.W.A. Infrastructure of Road Song Lyrics page.

Chuck Berry, "You Can't Catch Me":

New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours
I was rollin' slow because of drizzlin' showers
Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me
Then come wavin' goodbye a little' old souped-up jitney
I put my foot in my tank and I began to roll.

Nice, but that's pretty much it. Bruce Springsteen sang about the Jersey Turnpike in "Open All Night" and "State Trooper," neither of which was a popular single.

Highway 61, the "Blues Highway," is a more famous road than the NJT, at least judging by popular music.

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 2:25 AM on 2 January 2006

(sternly) Don't make me bring back "Electric Avenue."

Posted by: CGHill at 7:26 AM on 2 January 2006

I was rolling wheels and shifting gears
Around that Jersey Turkpike
Barney stopped me with his gun
Ten minutes after midnight
He said, "Sir you broke the limit
In this rusty old truck
I don't know about that accent son
Just where did you come from?"

--Alan Jackson, "Where I Come From"
(does "Top 40" refer to a format or can a song be top 40 in any format?)

Posted by: McGehee at 10:49 AM on 2 January 2006

Now, I've got that damned song in my head, which in turn makes me crave fried chicken, which can't be found in any reasonable form where I'm at.

Damn it.

And, Rt. 66=possibilities. NJT=petrochemicals. Hrm. Maybe it IS the new American road.

Posted by: aldahlia at 1:05 PM on 3 January 2006