There’s a strip of interstate freeway that stretches from the top to the bottom of the western United States.

In Oregon and Washington, it’s typically referred to as I-5. In most of California, it’s simply called “The 5.”

But regardless of local vernacular, Interstate 5 is perhaps one of the most diverse pieces of roadway in the United States – and for that matter, on planet Earth. Between its southern end on the Mexican border at San Ysidro, Calif., and its northernmost point where the Peace Arch marks the entrance to Canada near Blaine, Wash., this 1,381-mile ribbon of concrete and asphalt passes through an incredibly wide range of real estate.

Numerous types of topography and geography are represented along the way, including mountains, desert, forest, farmland, and – of course – big cities.

There are not too many more picturesque mountain landscapes than northern California’s Shasta area, and The 5 goes smack through it, even passing close by the western slope of the 14,000-foot Mount Shasta volcano.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Few landscapes are as green as the west sides of Oregon and Washington, and I-5 splits the middle of both. And as if the lush green of the fields and the majestic beauty of the huge Douglas fir trees and cedars wasn’t scenic enough, the view of the Cascade Mountains to the east accompanies travelers for hundreds of miles along I-5’s route through the two northwestern states (as long as said view isn’t obstructed by clouds – which is often is).

There’s even beauty to be found along The 5’s seemingly endless flat and straight portions in California’s gigantic Central Valley, as the fertile ground left behind by a former inland sea is now home to a sea of many types of crops.

From it’s highest point of 4,310 feet at the Siskiyou Summit in far northern California, to southwest Oregon’s hill country and areas along Washington’s salty blue Puget Sound, the worthy scenery goes on and on.

But alas, I-5 is not all about open road, cruise control and natural beauty.

It’s also a great place to experience some of the world’s worst traffic and it can set a perfect example for anyone wishing to get a first-hand look at the meaning of “overcrowded.”

As someone who lived a block from Disneyland in Anaheim for 11 years, spent 29 years in the Seattle area, and whose mother now lives in North San Diego County, I can honestly say that urban segments of Interstate 5 fully represent why I now reside in a remote outpost in south-central Missouri. In fact, one of the factors in the decision my wife and I made to abandon the whole urban thing in 1998 was being sometimes forced to navigate the eternally rough, tire-chain damaged part of I-5 that functions as the only north-south artery in Seattle (a huge city squeezed between a large body of fresh water to the east and an even larger body of salt water to the west).

Big city life – I look back and I don’t know how I did it for so long. And I don’t relate well to how people who do it now can stand it. There are just too dang many people trying to share the same space and freeways like I-5 are the proving ground.

This is a road with sections that are literally always crowded. Near my mom’s home in Carlsbad, there is either a tremendous volume of cars on I-5 or way, way more than that. Northbound or southbound, there is never, ever a sunlit moment when you can just mosey along without being accompanied by dozens of other drivers within a matter of yards from your front and rear bumpers.

Mom uses some of the wisdom she has gained in her 84 years and just stays off The 5 (yep, she still drives; plays golf twice a week, too).

Even before we got out of the city back in the late 90s, there was rarely a good time to get anywhere fast on I-5 within the Seattle city limits. And I-5 in Portland? Bring some good music and make plans to be late.

I’m sure the same goes for I-95 in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and I’ve seen the worst on Atlanta’s perimeter freeway, a.k.a. I-285. It’s motorized mayhem – an automotive nightmare. I shudder thinking about it.

Someone in our office was recently talking about visiting relatives near the Bay Area and how stressful driving around there was. For sure – and the bad news is driving is only the getting-there part. Once you’re “there,” you too often have to deal with crowded grocery store aisles, long lines at the bank or countless other situations involving lots of bodies.

Wherever there’s an eight-lane highway choked with rubber and steel, there is of course a throng of humanity to go with it.

Another person in the office commented on how they couldn’t live that way and how they even get a bit impatient waiting for the light to change while sitting behind four or five cars at the intersection of Missouri 17 and U.S. 63.

I couldn’t help but smile inside. I am soooooooo glad that about the only version of traffic jam I face on a regular basis is the likes of waiting a few minutes at the exit of the Walmart parking lot in Houston while two or three cars ahead of me find openings to head out onto 63.

Nowadays, when I’m forced to enter the urban freeway competition somewhere – like going through St. Louis to visit my wife’s brother – I feel kind of sorry for all the people driving around. I don’t know why, really, but I guess it’s like there’s this lemming thing going on that I’m glad to no longer be part of. Not that I don’t understand that that kind of lifestyle really does appeal to some people, it’s just that I know what it’s like and it doesn’t appeal to me.

I enjoyed the times when I drove its scenic parts, but I don’t miss I-5.

Thank God for the rural nature of the Ozarks. Given the choice, I’ll take the two-lane route.

Doug Davison is a writer, copy editor and advertising representative for the Houston Herald. E-mail: ddavison@houstonherald

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