Infrastructure-Defined Landscape

Posted: June 19, 2007 in Culture, Environment

I was recently driving a 160-mile stretch of highway between Hannibal, Missouri, and Cameron, Missouri. It’s now undergoing reconstruction as an extension of I-72 (extending to St. Joseph, Missouri). I’ve driven that stretch many times before and liked it particularly because it hadn’t yet fully become an interstate. It’s still U.S. 36 for a while yet. But it’s all changing now that the extension project is well underway.

As one approaches Hannibal, Missouri, from the east, the bluff on the western side of the Mississippi River Valley is visible from at least 10 miles off — almost like a mountain range rising in the distance. The old bridge across the river used to have a fairly steep ascent and attach to the top of the bluff, almost like a ladder leaning against a house. The impact of the topography has been blunted now that the new bridge rises smoothly through a road cut through the bluff, the bridge reaching its apex well past the actual geographical discontinuity. Of the entire stretch of the I-72 extension, Hannibal shows the most immediate changes, with all the small-town atmosphere — at least along the highway — giving way to what I often call “franchise hell”: a soulless expanse of strip malls populated by national franchises such as Olive Garden, Target, BP America, Lowe’s, etc. Even the new hospital gives off that same corporate vibe. And it’s all so sanitary and clean with ample access and parking provided by everyone’s tax dollars.

Once past Hannibal, much of the evidence of small-town American life has disappeared, replaced by a fifty-yard-wide right of way with a pair of parallel asphalt ribbons. Since the population density is low in north central Missouri, on and off ramps have yet to be built, so drivers nose up to the interstate and turn onto the highway from a dead stop — not a maneuver to be executed lightly. From previous traverses of this road, I remember plenty of one-room, clapboard-construction general stores and fuel depots with metal and neon signage dating from the 1930s or 40s. They were built right on the roadside, barely two car lengths from traffic, back before cars went much faster than 35 mph and before the road had progressed from county road to state highway to U.S. highway and now to interstate highway. Those businesses are all gone now, replaced by giant truck plazas set well back from the road with an inexhaustible selection of Doritos, Coke, Gatorade, beef jerky, etc. Of all those older buildings, I spied only a single church still standing perilously close to the 75–85 mph traffic whizzing by.

The farmhouses and quiet country life are probably still there, away from the highway, but there is new evidence of agribusiness. The era of the family farm may still exist in some small measure, but the monstrous grain silos with their complicated superstructures of conveyors and distributors signal the presence of ADM or a similar Big Ag corporate entity.

Perhaps the changes in the landscape are inevitable as we claim more and more land for different sorts of use. The rolling hills of the heartland and old U.S. 36 had more far character before they were smoothed out and updated as I-72. Inevitably, business and farm life nestled against the highway will gradually become the “everytown” (indistinguishable, really, from “nowhere”) with which we’re all so familiar. Heaven help Hannibal when it gets its first suburb.

  1. greywhitie says:

    i like your use of language. very poetic.

  2. presentpeace says:

    I watched the landscape below me scroll by my porthole window both as I took off from and returned to O’Hare. I hadn’t had a vacation in over seven years. What struck me immediately about what I saw was the bold contrast between what I saw all those years ago: the lush, green patches of land with maybe a few too many patches of concrete and what I was seeing at that moment through my window: so many concrete squares and almost no green ones. I knew then that we had overstepped our boundaries with the earth. We are a plague at worst and a parasite at best…and all we can do is go shopping to numb the dull ache of what we’ve done.

  3. greywhitie says:

    i would give commentator #2 a B+ on poeticality.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I moved from St. Louis to Hannibal, Missouri years ago. I lived in Hannibal for 5 years and absolutely LOVED it. I had to move back home, due to a family illness, and when I returned to Hannibal a year later… it had completely changed. It was no longer the place I remembered with that small-town feel. I believe the population was no more than 18,000 at the time.

    So I packed up my bags again and headed South of St. Louis this time. The town I live in now has approximately 5k population. I figure I have at least 10-15 years before I have to relocate again. LOL

    However, on a side note, Hannibal has had suburbs for years. Those can be found off of the highways as well. Although they are better hid than some of the barns! LOL

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