In the Dutch city of Oss, 60 miles southeast of Amsterdam, there’s a highway named N329. During the day, N329 is a stretch of road like so many others around the world—paved, painted, studded with signs. At night, however, N329—a 500-meter stretch of it, anyway—transforms. Its markings glow in the dark.
I’ve moved too much to have a good enough connection to a region to do a regional-gothic post, but I have seen a lot of highways. So here’s what I’ve got.
-> You thought you left all the shoes at home, but when your family pulls into a McDonald’s at 6am, somehow there are enough in different sizes for all ten of you to go in.
-> Has it always been night? It might have always been night.
-> It’s the twelfth hour in the car, and Coast to Coast AM is on the radio. Your father calls in and tells them about the angels he’s been seeing in the rest stops, says they hover in the corners where the tile is the filthiest, their eyes bright and wings dripping. Art Bell is shouting. Your father is shouting. You lose the station.
-> How many states have you driven through today? Welcome to where is it again? The what state? You thought you passed Northampton 100 miles ago, but it is 5 miles ahead.
-> The giant gas station by the highway and near to nothing else is alive and glowing from within at midnight. There are three employees in all the hundreds of thousands of square feet of it. None of them will look at you, and you sense that you have interrupted them. It’s not for another fifteen minutes of wandering the aisles that you realize there’s another customer, who also does not look at you. He is in his fifties, and wears stained jeans and a ripped tanktop. He is carrying a brand new, bright pink stuffed bear, which in turn holds a stuffed heart with the words “I’m Sorry” embroidered on it.
-> In your seat, you are safe, but you are also trapped. Your world is reduced to what you can reach without taking off your seatbelt. You drift in and out of books, in and out of music, and remember how trapped you are when you see another backseat rider. You make the briefest eye contact, and then they are gone.
-> Has it always been day? It might have always been day.
-> When you come over the mountain and see a town, spread out downhill to the right of the highway, you are at first relieved. But as the lights of the town wink out, one by one, you realize that all of it will be closed before you get there, and besides, there are no roads leading to it.
-> Where are the other roads going? Do the roads ever end?
-> The radio stations fade in and out. You might find one you like, but you will be out of range before the next message from their sponsors. Only Jack FM will follow you, but ask yourself if you want Jack FM to follow you. They might catch you.
-> You sleep fitfully; in the motel, you lie awake, listening to the electric buzzing from the bathroom (you hope it’s electric); in the car, you cramp your neck and close your eyes, but all you can see is highway. You have no dreams.
-> Traffic congestion is almost exciting. There are still other people in the world. You are all very close together, and if only the windows opened, you might be able to reach out and touch fingertips. Dogs are barking and the sounds of the city rise up from around the cramped highway overpass. A child cranes to look back at you from the car in front of you. In the lane to your right, a man in his thirties, immobile at the wheel of a delivery truck, is weeping, staring fixedly ahead. You have never seen such sadness. The car moves forward, and you lose sight of him.
-> Jesus saves. You see the words over and over until they lose meaning. What is Jesus saving? More importantly, what is he saving it for?
-> So may billboards for so many places you will never go, but somehow the names burn into you brain and you can’t forget that in 20 miles at exit 37 you’ll find thrown biscuits, or next exit – the world’s largest snake farm. They are always just ahead, and always changing. You will never reach them or see them or hear of them from anyone else.
-> You pass warehouses full of fireworks, warehouses full of porn. The fireworks warehouses have posters that seem to come from no particular epoch, except that it isn’t now; the porn warehouses are guarded by billboards about God’s wrath and God’s forgiveness, which seem to suggest that the porn warehouses are sacred ground.
-> Tiny, rural gas stations are only open when someone pulls in to gas up. The clerk jolts awake, dusts himself off, and prepares to sell sodas and candies that have not been heard of in this century. He smiles and nods and while you understand the sense of what he says, you couldn’t pick out any real words. His teeth seem to have turned into dust. Dust comes out of his mouth. Dust rises from the floor. Where is your car? There is only dust.
-> In a different giant rest stop – less new, less shiny – you encounter a crowd from a greyhound bus. Their eyes are dead and their knees crack with every step they take. Wordlessly, they shove each other aside, and without a hint of enjoyment shove donuts and premade sandwiches into their mouths. Then they are gone. They were never there.
-> You turn the dial and suddenly receive the crystal-clear signal of a station in a language you have never heard. The DJ is jovial, but his words have no meaning to you. There are callers with requests. When a song comes on, it is only screaming. You try to change the station and drive for 100 miles with that endless screaming echoing in your brain. You do not notice when you lose the station, but when you do, it is an immense relief.
-> Are we there yet? Are we where yet, exactly? Where were we going? Who are we? What has happened?
-> Eventually, you reach your destination. With relief, you climb into your own bed, or sit at your friend’s kitchen table, or visit a museum or a dying relative. You are where you were supposed to be – but the highway remains. The highway runs through you. Your heart has turned into asphalt, and you will never be the same.
We may soon be driving on last year’s plastic bags and bottles,
fished out of the ocean. A new project in the Netherlands is turning
plastic waste—especially scraps that couldn’t be used for anything
else—into new roads.
“The concept is based on the use of all kinds of waste plastic, but
mainly the part of the waste stream that doesn’t already have ‘high end’
recycling applications and would ordinarily be burned,” says Alex van
de Wall, an innovation manager at KWS Infra, the company testing the new
plastic roads. “One of the sources is the so-called plastic soup
floating in our oceans.”
Plastic roads have several advantages. Recycled plastic has a
dramatically lower carbon footprint than making asphalt, which is
responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. It’s also easier to work
with and longer lasting.
In 1939, futurists depicted a glamorous city of the late 20th century, where traffic flowed on multilevel, intersecting superhighways set off by towering skyscrapers. Their vision turned out to be surprisingly on the mark, but for those of us who live in the future, the reality often feels sterile, isolated, inhuman and dystopian.