There’s a stretch of highway in Louisville that feels exactly like Kansas City. After five years in Kentucky, I’d still find myself unconsciously switching lanes so I could exit onto a street in another time zone. Several stretches of St. Louis expressways were completely indistinguishable from Cincinnati. There’s a comforting familiarity in knowing how to navigate a strange city from the highway. Crossing the border into Canada always takes me by surprise because they don’t use roads the same way we do.
They say Texas is a whole other country. The roads here prove it.
For one thing, there’s no loop around Austin. Interstate 35 bisects the city and a group of state and local highways struggle to create a few faster routes around town, but there’s nothing remotely organized about it. A lot of the major roads have names like “FM 1325.” I heartily believe once a road has six lanes going 50 miles an hour it’s big enough to deserve an actual name but locals disagree. My GPS denies the existence of any address that consists of FM, RM, or IH followed by a random number.
If you’ve driven in 47 other states (I have no idea what roads are like in Hawaii or Alaska) you’re familiar with the way highways work. You drive until you find your exit, get off the highway, and motor around on surface streets. There’s a clear line between fast roads with no lights and slow roads with lots of intersections.
None of that exists here. Instead, local highways have 3-5 lanes in each direction with no stopping plus a supplemental 2-3 lanes alongside them full of shops and traffic lights. The supplemental lanes are supposed to flow 10 miles an hour slower than the main highway, but since traffic on Austin’s main roads is so congested, both tend to run about the same speed.
Getting to any stores on the supplemental lanes (all frustratingly invisible to my GPS) is tricky business. If you’re on the highway, you have to cross another 3 lanes of 50 mph traffic as soon as you get off, and sometimes the boundaries between the two aren’t entirely clear. If you’re on what ought to be an access road, you have to fight people using the lanes as highway overflow. They do not appreciate you slowing them down by turning. Since these lanes are all one way, if you miss your store, you have to get back on the highway, drive 1-2 miles to the next exit, drive past the store you wanted going the opposite direction, then loop back again. It’s maddening. The roads here feel like they were designed by people who read about highways without ever seeing one.
The one odd advantage is no road here can make me homesick. There were times when I’d take long, meditative drives around specific parts of Louisville just to evoke memories of happier times in other cities. Nothing here is capable of provoking nostalgia. In general, I think that’s been a good thing for me. I’m far from the people I care about most. When I drive home from yet another Meetup, there’s no moment of pretending I could pull off on this exit, turn twice, and be at a friend’s house. The city itself won’t let me forget this is a new place where I have no choice but to start over from scratch.