Wanted: traveling transparency

Vehicle barely visible behind Jersey barrier between lanes.Jersey barriers came into being for a really valid safety reason – but do they have to be opaque?

Our kids got their car legs at a very early age. First was a P1800 Volvo, a two-seater with a ledge behind on which we strapped the bassinette containing our firstborn, as we toured the mountains of central California and eastern Nevada. We found an observatory on a high place in the near-desert I probably could not find now if my life depended on it.

And the so-called Hearst Castle, a secluded monument to decadence where I saw my first surround-shower – a bathing chamber lined with perforated tubes after which I have ever since lusted at least a little. Imagine being massaged from all sides simultaneously by high pressure fingers of hot water.

Later, there was a Datsun pickup onto which we mounted a fiberglass cap with a “boot” connecting the cab with the plywood platform on which lay the, by then, two offspring. In it, we introduced the young’uns to wilderness camping in the Sierra Nevadas.

Eventually, there was the 1977 Dodge van, with a bed in the wayback, a table and a refrigerator. That was the era when the kids were old enough to ask, “Are we going to stop pretty soon?” and my standard reply was, “The truck doesn’t need gas yet.”

The kids got to climb around lots of interesting places, including the Alaskan tundra and Revolutionary War battlefields around Jamestown and Yorktown. (The more assertive of the two offspring occasionally got in trouble for knowing more than his teachers about locales they talked about in class.)

There were innumerable points of interest to be discovered along the nation’s highways in the 1970s, largely unhindered by Jersey barriers that now seem to separate us from the dangerous of surrounding human and natural attractions.

I am regularly reminded, as I travel along out multi-lane divided highways – 2,300 miles last week – how much “safety” tallies on the expense side of the ledger. It is especially obvious as we pass over deep mountain canyons, at the bottom of which flow rivers we only see in books.

For example, the Kentucky River, flowing a couple hundred feet below I-75 as we drove last week from Cincinnati, Ohio to Lake City, Fla., the travel lanes braced on both sides with walls of sloped opaque concrete. The only natural feature visible from a car is nearly a mile away – the wooded sides of a canyon cut by thousands of years of water-worn history flowing from the Appalachian Mountains to the Ohio River.

What is almost as disturbing is looking inside passing vehicles and seeing young people concentrating on texting and video games. But it is difficult to recommend the outside view, too often restricted to a blurred view of the tops of Jersey barriers and the crowns of roadside trees.

On the other hand, my travel partner has another game. She counts license plates. This trip, she got within four of counting all 50 states, and even got three Canadian provinces. She would have scored the remaining states had cars going the other way not been blocked by that concrete wall.

Jersey barriers initially were designed to prevent speeding vehicles from flying off the original Dead Man’s Curve in California. Now they are walls of a tunnel, blocking any view not directly in front of the driver. We should put our scientists to work on transparent concrete from which to mold new Jersey barriers, allowing us to see the natural wonders that now fly by outside our car windows.

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