It was our escape route from college. It was like a friend that called to us, told us there was a better world out there, out west. It was the road from bad to beautiful, from the city to the slopes.
For a road junkie like me, a road is never simply a road. The very thought of places being connected, or of a single thing like a highway actually existing in two places at once, has always inspired me. I see a US 64 sign on Union Avenue and think of New Mexico. I drive across the river on I-40 and think of California. I get past Cordova and think of the Smokies.
We would load up the car some Thursday afternoon (Friday classes were always skippable) and head west from Dallas. It was all interstate and traffic and billboards at that point, but we knew what lay ahead. We would usually have the ideal setup three guys, a cooler, and plenty of tapes that would allow for nonstop travel for up to 24 hours. The first sign of US 287 we would see would be on an exit just outside of Fort Worth. 287 a number pregnant with beauty to me, a number that still stirs some part of me almost 20 years later.
Technically speaking, US Highway 287 stretches more than 1,800 miles from Port Arthur, Texas, to Choteau, Montana. Along the way it skirts Fort Worth, then climbs a hill to the north and west; at virtually every turn in its life, 287 is going north and/or west. As were me and my friends at the time whenever we could.
Somewhere just past Fort Worth we would get our first big view, the kind of view where the horizon blends into the clouds or you can see an entire train at once. And thats when we would know the city was behind us for good. We were in the West then.
Wed settle into the rhythm of highway driving not interstate driving, but highway driving, where you slow down for towns. Theres one town on 287 in Texas whose welcome sign has a huge gun on it and reads This here is Gods country, so dont drive like hell through it. Youd miss such a thing on an interstate.
Just west of Wichita Falls, wed come to Memphis as it says in their town motto, Texas, that is. Memphis, Texas calls, itself the Cotton capital of the Panhandle, where ranches trace their roots to Comanche days and the depot is still at the center of town. Like every other gathering of more than eight buildings in Texas, Memphis also has a church and a Dairy Queen. I frequented the latter back in the day.
We would leave 287 in Amarillo, where several places will give you a 64-ounce steak for free if you eat it in an hour. We would turn more west at that point, to get to New Mexico and a little piece of heaven called the Cimarron Canyon and by the way, the road up that canyon is, if you have the right perspective, Union Avenue.
But from Amarillo, 287 heads on, north and west, across the panhandle of Oklahoma and into Colorado, to places like Kit Carson, Wild Horse, Hugo, and Teds Place. Yes, theres a town called Teds Place, Colorado. Couldnt tell you why, though.
From there, 287 crosses into Wyoming and gets as high as 8,106 feet on Pumpkin Vine Hill, in country where the Department of Transportation warns the road is both desolate and dangerous. Ground blizzards are common, as the wind picks up the loose snow and blows it toward Nebraska.
When 287 gets to Laramie, they just call it Third Street. Between Muddy Gap and Sweetwater Station, though, its part of the old Oregon Trail and has quite a view of the Wind River Mountains for about 40 miles. It eventually goes through Yellowstone National Park and out the other side, then darn near makes it Canada before it dead-ends in Choteau which is a heck of a long way, in every conceivable sense, from Port Arthur, Texas.
I guess thats what its about, to me, with highways. Somehow the idea of, say, US 2 connecting Seattle with Bangor creates an obvious and urgent need: to drive the whole thing! Union Avenue, for example, connects the North Carolina coast to the Four Corners country in Arizona.
I came across 287 once, unexpectedly, in Montana. I was headed for Helena to look for a job, as I recall. It had been a while since I thought about 287, but seeing it out there in Lewis and Clark country made me stop and think. I thought about the Gulf Coast and the high plains and desert and Dairy Queens. I thought about college kids running away for the weekend and I thought about the sight of the Rocky Mountains in the first light of the day.
And if I squinted my eyes just right, I could see all those things right down the road.