I grew up in LaGrange, a near west suburb of Chicago. Until I left home for college, then returned for a year after graduate school before moving to the near north side, my bedroom was the same: a dormer the shape of a house a child might draw, with peaked ceiling and two small windows like eyes facing east. The 10- x 10-foot square offered two options for where a single bed would fit, headboard against the north wall, or headboard against the west.
As I settled my body from play or work, I was hypnotized by the headlights from Ogden Avenue that strobed the south wall. They were my lullaby, my bedtime story, my last memory before sleep. I wondered where these cars and trucks were going into the night. I counted the seconds between flashes, holding my breath in-between. I listened for the crescendo and fading of vehicles as they passed. I blinked against the staccato of light that interrupted my sleep, yet I’m not sure it wasn’t what finally helped me fall asleep.
The street sign on the corner by my house read “Ogden Ave.,” named after Chicago’s first mayor, William Butler Ogden. The 1909 plan for the city recommended a network of diagonal streets extending out like spokes, but only Ogden Avenue was completed, following the route of the Southwestern Plank Road. While it is known as Ogden Avenue locally, if you drive its steady line west from Berwyn to Aurora, the Mississippi River, and beyond, you see signs for US 34.
If you turn left from Malden and continue west, 1,122 miles later brings you to the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved through highway in the U.S. The west terminus for US 34 is in Granby, Colorado, at US 40. Its eastern origin, in Berwyn, Illinois, connects to historic US 66.
All those years in my small bedroom, feeling my own smallness, I lay along this vast connector and vital crossroad. The strobe of headlights on the wall played the single cinematic history of human experience again and again. Here was a region where people came, settled, and built; a city people passed through on their way to greater adventure and opportunity; a land where war gave way to prosperity, then depression, recovery, and waves of immigrants; where people in search of something else mostly found themselves; a place where every minute of every day someone turns onto US 34 or any highway or byway, not knowing when their journey will end.