Author William Least Heat Moon calls the ribbons of two-lane road across the United States "Blue Highways" because they were once colored blue on maps. These roads and the towns on them have often been bypassed by faster interstates running parallel routes as harried travelers try to see as much as possible in a short time.
One of those often-forgotten highways is U.S. 89, a nearly 1,800-mile road established in 1925 at the advent of the automotive age. It stretches past seven national parks and through numerous geologic zones from the Mexican to Canadian border.
In Utah, that road includes State Street running from Spanish Fork to Brigham City. It runs the entire length of the state, passing through tiny communities filled with historic homes, unusual shops, fruit stands, orchards and restaurants far different from the fast-food joints off freeway exits.
Arizona photographer Jim Cowlin and his artist wife, Barbara, have made a project of studying this highway.
They have formed the U.S. 89 Appreciation Society and are working to preserve and publicize the joys of "slow roads" by using blogs, websites, publications and art.
The couple's goal is to encourage slower-paced travel that is as much about the journey as the destination. It is about exploration on a more personal level than zooming along the interstates from park to park. It is about eating at a local cafe, stopping at a historical marker or enjoying a regional art center.
"To me, the excitement of going along the road is keeping my eyes out for odd little places, stopping and exploring them," said Barbara. "It sometimes takes a little bit of courage to force yourself to stop someplace because you don't know what you are going to encounter. But nine out of 10 times, it's something interesting like a little restaurant with fabulous food, or a craft shop with wonderful jewelry made in the area."
The couple, who live in Oracle, Ariz., are on an exploration trip the length of a highway that, unlike Route 66, is still in use through much of the route, though parts in Arizona have been decommissioned. They pull a custom-built Teardrop camping trailer made, appropriately enough, by a Logan company near U.S. 89. They sell $5 memberships to the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society and use corporate sponsors and individual donors to finance their efforts. The first of several magazines, U.S. Route 89: The West's Most Western Highway Road Trip Map Book, breaks the road into sections and tells about its geology and geography as well as some history. A blog at www.us89society.org features photography and artwork.
Such publicity helps smaller local projects such as the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area, which includes 250 miles of U.S. 89 from Thistle to Kanab, as well as the Boulder Loop including Utah Highways 12 and 24.
"It helps us a lot," said Monte Bona of Mt. Pleasant, director of the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area, whose group has distributed $500,000 in grants to help develop and preserve sites along the road. "What I would like to see happen eventually is the designation of Highway 89 from Canada to Mexico to something like what Route 66 is. That's what the Appreciation Society is working on. We would also like to have alliances with entities like ours so people can travel the whole highway segment by segment."
Jim Cowlin said what he mostly hears is that nobody has ever heard of U.S. 89. He finds that interesting because, unlike Route 66, which doesn't exist in many places along the original route, U.S. 89 is a living road where travelers can go and find real towns with real people.
"You can experience all of the geography of the West from basin and range, the Colorado Plateau, across the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Plains along this road," he said.
Cowlin has worked to research the history of the area near the road, which provides access to Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. "While researching the history and the culture, we discovered you can trace the entire history of the West from Native American people all the way through the Spanish into the era of the first Anglo exploration, the mountain men, miners, prospectors and ranchers," he said. "The Mormons who came, settled and developed U.S. Route 89 in many ways provided a different cultural experience. And you had the development of three of the West's largest cities in Tucson, Phoenix and Salt Lake. If you stay on State Street from Spanish Fork to Brigham City, you are going to be pretty close to U.S. 89."
But the key, according to Barbara Cowlin, is taking the time to pay attention to little things such as roadside monuments or a funny-looking cafe. The fun is often not going to a particular place but exploring as you go.
And to anyone who has ventured off Interstate 15 and driven any part of U.S. 89, those words hold true.
This heritage area includes 250 miles of U.S. 89 from Thistle to Kanab as well as 150 miles on Highways 12 and 24 called the Boulder Loop. It recently received a $500,000 grant from the federal government.
Projects that are planned and being worked on » Mormon Pioneer Heritage Center, Snow College, Ephraim; Central Utah Pioneer Center, Manti Temple; Restoration of Fairview Dance Hall; Mt. Pleasant Agritourism Center; Restoration of Ephraim Carnegie Library; Restoration of Gunnison Casino Star Theater; Big Rock Candy Mountain railroad interpretive center; Box Car Motel at Big Rock Candy Mountain; Escalante Hole in the Rock Interpretive Center.