If every highway is like a story waiting to be told, then it follows that some of these stories are beautiful, poignant travels in the human experience, and some are Lovecraft stories that end with you wanting to cry and gouge your eyeballs from your head.
Spencer Hall: I-40 between Nashville and Memphis
I-40 between Memphis and Nashville is 211 miles of pure unendurable redneck wormhole, just pine trees and blank highway and bucolic country blight without a single landmark to keep you half-awake. There are longer, more desolate roads -- hello, I-10 in the desert between LA and San Antonio. There are far uglier -- looking at you, US 19 in Pinellas County, Fla., a road that should be erased from the human consciousness and replaced with something more attractive like a giant, rotting quilt made of whale tumors.
There are bad, bad roads in America. None have I-40's ability to warp time itself, and turn what should be a three-hour drive with traffic into a creeping space-time anomaly broken only by the words "hey, there's the exit for Bucksnort." I am convinced a person could extend their lifespan near infinitely and live to biblical ages provided they drove only on this stretch of I-40. No one will ever prove this, because no one would subject themselves to this even in the name of near-immortality. They would rather die, and wisely so.
The worst payoff comes in the destinations, since no one who likes Nashville has ever liked Memphis, and no one who likes Memphis has ever liked Nashville. It's three hours that feels like nine, and all on a road where tons of people are going somewhere they openly dislike. But hey, look: Bucksnort!
Hey look y'all: It's Bucksnort, located seven hours into the three-hour drive between Nashville and Memphis.
Alfie Crow: I-4
Interstate 4 is one of the worst stretches of highway anywhere. Connecting you across the middle of Florida from I-95 to Tampa Bay, it's a continual pain in the ass of constant construction or wrecks. Trying to go to Disney World? Have a fun two-hour jaunt on I-4 as you navigate dynamic speed limits during rush hour that add unnecessary time to your trip, despite the fact that at parts it's an EIGHT LANE HIGHWAY WITH A SPEED LIMIT OF 55 MPH. Then there is always a wreck. Always. No matter how minor it is, traffic is ruined for 10 miles each direction.
Brendan Porath: I-90 between Toledo and South Bend
I nominate the Ohio/Indiana stretch of I-90 from about Toledo (and points east) to South Bend.
This is the most bleak, unforgiving and usually fallow stretch of land on the American interstate system. There are no turns, grades or hills to even keep your interest or attention as a driver. There are no landmarks, towns or points of reference that would prompt discussion or anything thought-provoking.
There are two primary sources of entertainment derived from this stretch of road: 1) the internal struggle of whether or not you should stop and bring yourself to indulge at that Hardee's you were just notified is approaching, or 2) the contemplation of what could possibly be offered and desirable on the menu at Fazoli's, listed on Wikipedia as a "fast-casual Italian-American chain restaurant" that you assume only exists on an Indiana turnpike rest stop sign.
I'm convinced that's why so many people are moved or drawn to the golden dome -- it's the only moderately interesting thing rising out of this hellscape.
Jon Bois: I-77, West Virginia
When you drive through West Virginia, you are flipping a coin. If you win, you're in for a drive that winds through valleys and up mountains, full of breathtaking, gorgeous scenery. If you lose, Satan crunches a fist of talons around your Toyota and devours it whole with you inside, like a Little Leaguer too impatient to shell his sunflower seeds.
I have landed on the unlucky side a number of times, most notably on a March evening when I was 21 years old. I was driving to Roanoke, Va., from Cleveland, and in some apparent effort to win the Sad Things Triple Crown, I took I-77 through the southern part of West Virginia. A storm gathered on the way, and a foot-plus of snow and freezing rain dumped all over the Mountain State. I was absolutely dead broke, and was managing my gear shifting like an Apollo flight leader trying to limp back to Earth. I was running out of fuel, with no means to buy more. I spent two hours in the dead of night creeping behind a snowplow at five miles per hour. It was abject misery.
I coaxed my Toyota into gaining 44 miles per gallon, and we made it home with maybe a shotglass of fuel in the tank. On my way out, at one of several billion toll stations, West Virginia hit me with one final indignity. The toll was 35 cents, I think. I rifled through my glove box, back seat, and trunk for pennies and nickels. It was a while before I looked up and saw that the operator, taking a cruel sort of pity, had raised the raised the barrier. I think I'm a pleasant person, by and large. But I stared at him, as though this was all his fault, and flung all the money in my fist at the collection chute. Ten of those cents might have made it to the Governor's office. Ten more fell in the snow, doomed to lie in the Devil's Province for all of time.
Chris Haines: the Schuylkill Expressway
The Schuylkill Expressway is Philadelphia's answer to traffic hell. The views of the Schuylkill River and Boathouse Row (which everyone will recognize from any nationally televised sporting event in Philadelphia) are magnificent, which is good because you're going to spend hours looking at 'em. It doesn't matter what time of day or night you drive on the Schuylkill, you're going to hit some kind of traffic. Go ahead, open up Google Maps and turn on traffic data. There will be red somewhere between Philadelphia and King of Prussia. The especially cruel secret (rumor) is that when engineers were planning the expressway, one poor soul missed a calculation by a decimal point and that threw off the traffic pattern forever.
Tom Ziller: Interstate 5 from Bakersfield to Los Angeles
Congratulations! You're a Northern Californian who has successfully navigated alternating periods of incredible boredom and terror at obviously sleeping/texting big rig drivers to make it to Southern California. I-5 actually sidesteps Bakersfield, so you're going straight from the unending flatness of the Central Valley up a mountain pass with a six percent grade for its first five miles and 22 miles of rolling hills to follow, with lanes upon lanes of 18-wheelers and overstuffed SUVs fighting gravity and each other. If you pick the right time of year, the CHP just might close down the pass due to ice or wind, which means a minimum three-hour detour just to sniff the L.A. basin.
Your prize for safely completing the mission: you descend immediately into the hell of L.A. traffic, where you'll move the next 20 miles in roughly three hours. If it's not rush hour.
Heading north at the end of your trip? Good luck surviving that six percent Grapevine downhill, previewed by an endless stream of warning signs and multiple brake check areas.
Brian Floyd: Highway 26 between Vantage and Pullman, Wash.
When one decides to attend Washington State University, a certain level of commitment is involved. The school, located in Pullman, is in the middle of nowhere, a solid hour and a half from civilization and real transportation hubs. Choosing to go to school in Pullman, for most of the student population that lives on the west side of Washington, means choosing to drive four and a half hours to the middle of nowhere on the most boring highway in the state.
Highway 26 in Washington between Vantage and Pullman is long, mostly straight, and surrounded by nothingness (wheat fields). It says something when the landmarks are a barn that has WSU painted on the side and a town that has a big gas station everyone stops at. There are also large rocks along the roadway for a couple miles.
It's a two-lane highway with a speed limit south of 70 that also functions as a revenue generator for the fine folks at the Washington State Patrol. This leads to two things: Each student getting a speeding ticket at some point in their Washington State career (mine was on my first visit to the school; I banged that out early) and cars being backed up going 60 or less, unable to pass or simply playing leapfrog for two hours. Everyone is suffering the same misery, and usually doing it in packs.
And that's why everyone who has spent significant amounts of time in Pullman gets a warm and fuzzy feeling when cresting the hill into the city. It's not just because Pullman feels like home. It's because the damn drive is finally over.
Ryan Van Bibber: Three selections, because he has made a lot of mistakes in life
1. King of the Road: I-80/I-76 - Cozad, Neb., to Sterling, Colo., 184 miles
Remember the scene in Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven where Gene Hackman's character tells Richard Harris' character that he was dead but it turned out he was "just in Nebraska?"
Nothing I could write here better describes the four lanes of asphalt that follow the Platte River through the state of Nebraska. The gentle curves of the highway are the only thing forcing a driver to stay awake and the only feature of note until the Sand Hills start popping up when you get closer to the Wyoming border. You get to watch subsidized corn fields turn into subsidized wheat fields. And heaven help you if you want something to eat. There's only one option on this stretch of road, a Dairy Queen combined with a Stuckey's in Brady, Neb.
On a trip through there with my uncle and my cousin between my eighth grade and freshman year of high school, we were getting desperate. Hungry and bored. A Dairy Queen sign and the promise of soft serve reinvigorated my uncle and I. My cousin opted to be stubborn, he did not want his share of Dairy Queen's brazer bounty that day. And we didn't stop there.
The practice of insistence humor is a virtue, no matter how much you want a twist cone. The dried up plains of late August in Nebraska is a good place to appreciate that.
I-70, Salina to Hays, Kan., 97 miles
There isn't a damn thing to see in Kansas (outside of Eisenhower's boyhood home, because, dammit, I like Ike). It took me a long to time to realize that, much longer than it should have considering I've traversed that state from east to west and vice versa no fewer than 100 times in almost four decades of existence.
And I can say this as someone with roots in Kansas. My grandmother's family homesteaded in Hays, and lived there until the middle part of the 20th century.
You never know where you are when you're crossing Kansas on I-70, at least not outside the Kansas City orbit. The trip starts and your subconscious takes over. It's about a six-hour drive that somehow seems like a fortnight, but one you have absolutely no memories of. Kansas blacks you out on itself.
Salina is about the halfway point, but you don't remember it, either. The only thing there to jar you into reality for a minute is an adult bookstore, I-70 Novelty, in the middle of an oil spot pulloff called Brookville, just west of Salina. You can't miss it thanks to a series of billboards to remind truckers and conversion van pilots that there's an oasis of pornography and sex toys waiting for them in the middle of the prairie.
I-44, Joplin, Mo., to Tulsa, Okla., 113 miles
It's not fair because you think, or you want to anyway, that you're heading into the heart of the West. This is Oklahoma. Television has always crammed it in there with the pioneers and covered wagons and cowboys with six shooters.
But, nope, it's just flat, especially in this part of the state, indistinguishable from Kansas or Nebraska. There are casinos. And it's fun to listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard sing Choctaw Bingo with the pedal to the floor, trying your damnedest to get the hell out of Oklahoma.
It's also home to the world's largest McDonalds, which is built OVER the interstate in Vinita. The world's largest McDonalds is just like any other McDonalds, and it's size doesn't give it any more cash registers or any more cashiers to expedite your stop at the world's largest McDonalds. The only thing that really makes it stand apart from other franchisees is that it happens to be the world's nastiest McDonalds. Woe to you if you can't hold it in until you get to Cracker Barrel in Tulsa.
There's one more thing this part of asphalt America has that its Kansas and Nebraska counterparts lack: signs advising drivers not to drive through smoke.
Why? Who knows. Nobody at the world's largest McDonalds has ever been able to tell me.