"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
IN AUGUST OF 2008, POLICE in Lubbock, Texas, were notified of a woman's body found in a desolate oilfield near Interstate 27. She had been bludgeoned and was partially submerged in mud. Recent rainstorms had all but obliterated potential forensic evidence. Fingerprints identified her as a twenty-nine year old local woman with a history of prostitution and drug abuse. Her last known address was a rundown motel, the Sunset, in northwest Lubbock. Investigators had no witnesses and few leads. The woman apparently died as she had lived: unnoticed.
She wasn't the only one. For more than a decade, Lubbock — a midsized, industrial city best known as the birthplace of Buddy Holly — has been a clearinghouse for unsolved murders. At least five of the victims were prostitutes, women who tricked the corridor of truck stops along I-27 and route 82. Their bodies — strangled, stabbed, or beaten — were dumped in vacant lots and on backroads. Although the methodology varied case by case, reports of a serial killer roving the Texas plains seized local headlines. Area highways took on the dark radiance of a killing floor.
In 2009, the FBI released statistics claiming nearly five hundred bodies have been dumped along America's highways over the last thirty years. The dead seem to have come from nowhere, five hundred cold cases, the aftermath of some colossal killing machine still at large. It's the history and ubiquity of this machine that Ginger Strand confronts in her new book, Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate.
No other feature of our national landscape has the same lonely menace, the same panoramic yet stifling dread, of an empty highway. I experienced this for myself while driving from New York City to San Francisco last spring. Following I-80 through the Alleghenies and into West Virginia, the road was business as usual: Best Westerns and Super 8s, Walmarts and Home Depots, the fluorescent shoal of drive-thru food. Things changed after I-40 in Knoxville. The suburban sprawl thinned; hotels and restaurants dwindled. By Texas's panhandle, the whole vibe had gone ominous. The highway was windblown and barren. Towns appeared and vanished like aneurysms. Little handmade crucifixes, memorials, clustered in the ditch, while overhead billboards shrilled prophecies of abortion, meth, and Armageddon. In New Mexico, burned-out houses crumbled in the desert. One was littered inside with gay pornography and mass market paperbacks, a gutted computer, dozens of desiccated condoms. The refrigerator held a single box of baking soda.
Strand describes highways as "analogs of cultural psychosis," and anyone who's pulled into a rest stop after dark knows what she means. There's something about encountering your fellow road dogs that inspires both suspicion and edgy goodwill. As early as the 50s, the FBI distributed a series of PSAs urging motorists to avoid picking up hitchhikers. "Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal — a pleasant companion or a sex maniac — a friendly traveler or a vicious murderer?" the ads asked, and the questions were clearly unrhetorical. No matter that such scare tactics were meant to de...read more