Lost Highway Revisited: Ginger Strand’s “Killer on the Road”

"No other feature of our national landscape has the same lonely menace, the same panoramic yet stifling dread of an empty highway."

By Jeremy LybargerMay 28, 2012

    Killer on the Road by Ginger Strand. University of Texas Press. 222 pages.

    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 deter student activists from attending civil rights demonstrations, a new catechism reverberated through the cultural imagination: Highways are dangerous places.

    This wasn't always the case. As Strand reminds us, there was a honeymoon during which America's interstates symbolized innovation and prosperity, along with the carrot of reinvention. Pennsylvania's turnpike was nicknamed the dreamway, and motorists lined up for hours just to drive it. Madison Avenue saw the highways' glamour early on and exploited it in lush, utopian advertising. Cars became status symbols and fetish toys. In lieu of penis enlargement, American men invented the game of chicken. The interstates represented a "Manifest Destiny for modernity," Strand writes, with all the ambivalence and catastrophe that entails.

    The first and most enduring catastrophe was human. Charles Starkweather's 1957/58 rampage across Nebraska and Wyoming left eleven people dead and, as Strand suggests, inaugurated a new era of footloose killing: "It was in the car-centered culture of America's juvenile delinquents where that dream [of American growth] first showed its dark side: mobility, rootlessness, lack of human connection." In Starkweather's case, human connection was almost always mercenary. Ignored by his working-class parents and bullied by classmates, he quit high school and landed a string of low-wage jobs, including newspaper bundler and trash collector. The only real blessing was Caril Ann Fugate, Starkweather's fourteen-year-old girlfriend and the custodian of his increasingly sadistic impulses. Together they murdered Fugate's mother, stepfather, and baby sister. She rode shotgun during the couple's two-month killing spree, sipping Cokes and, if newspapers were to be believed, having the time of her life. 

    Strand is careful to parse cause and coincidence when assessing Starkweather's motive, at least as far as highways go, but she makes the mistake of many cultural historians by privileging the collective over the personal. Citing the economic schism that accompanied highway construction, she describes postwar America as a land of barriers (both figurative and literal) where the poor were shunted to often desperate margins. "People like Charlie became even more isolated from the mainstream," she writes, implying his extreme apathy was really a byproduct of poverty. As recent headlines attest, economic fallout can be lethal. People lose their jobs one day, kill their families and themselves the next. Starkweather, however, invites a less tendentious reading. His bowed legs (likely the result of Blount's disease), speech impediment, low IQ, and infatuation with James Dean were probably more responsible (to whatever extent such variables ever are) for his crimes than lean midwestern living. When asked by the press what drove him to kill, Starkweather replied: "All we wanted to do is get out of town." There's something disarmingly innocent in this, a statement that encapsulates all of America's angst, boredom, and wayward optimism. Without realizing it, Starkweather had delivered a fitting epitaph to the Beat generation and the raison d'etre for the onrushing Summer of Love.

    America's interstate system grew exponentially in the '60's, first doubling then tripling in size. Kids high on peace, acid, and Kerouac embraced hitchhiking as both an environmental and economic credo. Coast to coast, the highway became what Main Street had been for preceding generations: a place of chance encounters and easy commerce. As Strand argues, it also became a psychic stage where the nation workshopped its anxieties. In the '60's, this primarily meant fear of youth. Hippies, flower children, longhairs, whatever the epithet, America was deeply unnerved by its androgynous, pot-smoking young. They were a toxic element in the body politic, its Dionysian id, and metaphors of disintegration dominated pop culture. Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Night of the Living Dead, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, and scores of B movies all reflected an anarchic society on the verge of cannibalizing itself. The Manson murders, the decade's horrific apotheosis, made a kind of Grand Guignol sense; they seemed to exorcize the dystopian urges underlying more beatific narratives of love and fellowship. That they happened in Los Angeles, in the home of Roman Polanski, a Polish émigré tinged by the Holocaust, makes a still more geometric sense: a line runs from Auschwitz through La Cielo Drive to America's multiplexes, a line as nihilistic as the highway itself. To put it bluntly, highways depreciate human life, which made them efficient accomplices to the dehumanizing decades in which they were built. They remain blank slipstreams through the meat of the country, dreamways where people are reducible to numbers on speedometers, license plates, and mile markers. "When they are discovered in truck stop dumpsters or discarded like litter in the interstate right-of-way, their relative value is being totted up," Strand writes of highway prostitutes, but she could just as easily be talking about any of us. All of us.

    What I'm getting at, what Strand only alludes to, is that the interstate system bureaucratized loss of control. The very phrase lose control is synonymous with traffic accidents and indicates naïvete about what exactly the highway offers. Cruise control, another misnomer, is just high-speed sleepwalk. Make no mistake: The driver is never in control. According to Strand, "behind the wheel, we are all psychopaths," and the '90's road rage phenomenon is proof enough that drivers go berserk at the least provocation. "One thinks of passing the car in front of you," Ronald Buel wrote in Dead End (1972), in a passage quoted by Strand:

    or beating the other car to a parking place, instead of passing the person in front of you or fighting the person for a parking place. The auto prevents casual contact with others unlike oneself. And because we don't understand the humanity of others, there are fewer limits to our aggressive tendencies.

    There's another problem besides anomie: the puzzle of space. Highways are neither fully public nor fully private, but a bastardization of each. They are transitional spaces where individual agency succumbs to faith in collective sanity. Who's to say, after all, that the driver beside you isn't a 70mph sociopath? Or a gunman blitzed on Adderall and vendettas? This is true for any more or less public space, but highways incubate a specific psychotropic headspace. Objects will be closer than they appear; heat mirages will peacock over asphalt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 people fall asleep behind the wheel every year, and this too is consistent with unreality. Sociologist Jane Jacobs theorized that "eyes on the street" are a checks-and-balance against urban crime, but what happens out on the open road when those eyes turn inward, entranced by their own bad dreams?

    Bogeymen like Ed Kemper, Randy Kraft, Patrick Kearney, William Bonin, and Herbert Mullin emerge. They belonged to a new crop of freeway killers who preyed on hitchhikers (all of them, incidentally, from California). Taking advantage of America's increased mobility and the communal ethos of its young, these men violently transformed the character of transitional space. As the psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott observed in 1951: "It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people — the transitional space — that intimate relationships and creativity occur." Substitute "psychopathology" for "creativity" and you get a tidy working theory for why interstates spawned a bonanza of serial killers in the '60's and '70's. Like the society they served, interstates were a breeding ground for grifters, false prophets, and drifters shilling everything from a ride to Frisco to a glimpse of heaven. In Strand's words: "Hitchhike your way across the USA and at the other side, you can become a new person. If that's not utopia, what is?" Unfortunately, utopia and denial look a lot alike.

    As in her discussion of Starkweather, Strand is sometimes too eager to trace a reciprocal link between America's larger cultural breakdown and individual psychiatry. The book's second chapter, devoted to the "co-ed killer" Ed Kemper, takes a wide-angle lens to the '60's: "His [Ed Kemper's] journey began in 1963, the year America went mad. The United States was increasingly embroiled in a baffling war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement was turning violent in town after Southern town, and in November, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy as his motorcade crept through Dallas. Then Oswald himself was assassinated on live television by Jack Ruby." In trying to provide context, Strand instead wagers a diagnosis: "America went mad." Little wonder then that Ed Kemper erupted from the backwash, a readymade killer. The culture was waiting for him. To be fair, Strand does a credible job of summarizing Kemper's case file: "According to his sisters, he chopped the heads off their dolls, killed the family cats, and liked to play a game where he pretended to die in the gas chamber. He had a habit of staring that made the neighborhood kids nervous." But within a broader analysis of violence and the interstate, such facts become anecdotal at best. It's as if Strand urges us to ignore how and why and even who Kemper killed in favor of where. The highway is the real predator. It strands motorists, lures hitchhikers, and ultimately brokers the fatal rendezvous between killer and victim. Without it, murder would be less efficient, less gratuitous. 

    If that's true, it's only the silhouette of a truth. Many attempts to reconcile local extremism with cultural movements run aground on their own post hoc reasoning. After Columbine, for example, America's moral majority rushed to indict violent media without much soul-searching about what triggers our appetite for sadism in the first place. Strand commits a similar error when she hews too closely to a tabloid blueprint: grisly stories, grainy snapshots, foreboding epigraphs. Her capsule biographies of various freeway killers feel particularly inconclusive. What is the takeaway from such nuggets as "'Mad-at-World' Youth Kills His [Ed Kemper's] Grandparents,' reported the local newspaper, right under the breaking news 'Cute Little Girl's Kissing Santa Claus'?" That we live in an absurd world? That society is so desensitized it segues from horror to kitsch without breaking a sweat? These are themselves desensitizing ideas, chaff from a long tradition of satire. The core thesis of The Killer on the Road — expanding infrastructure engenders social and economic upheaval — is finally anticlimactic.

    Strand is more compelling when she quits the true crime beat to focus instead on the interplay of race and gentrification. "The Cruelest Blow," the book's third chapter, recounts the string of child murders that devastated Atlanta in the early 1980s. At least twenty-eight African Americans, ranging in age from seven to twenty-seven, disappeared or were murdered. "They all came from a very tightly defined part of town … circumscribed by I-20 in the north, I-285 (the Perimeter) in the west, and to the east, the Downtown Connector." As in Lubbock, investigators had few leads, although a common denominator was the Omni, a complex of video arcades, fast-food joints, and upscale stores where several victims were last seen. In 1981, James Baldwin covered the murders for Playboy, and, as Strand notes, was quick to highlight the city's economic and racial bigotry. "When I was in Atlanta in the fifties," he wrote:

    though some Blacks rode buses … and some drove taxis and some drove cars — and many walked — we all seemed to be in hailing distance of each other, and in sight of a church or a poolroom or a bar. But now, neither Butler nor Auburn Street, for example, is what it was and, it seemed to me, the faces there, now, convey a pained and bewildered sense of having been abandoned.

    It wasn't abandonment so much as dispossession. Completed in 1964, Atlanta's Downtown Connector (I-75/I-85) cut through Summerhill and Mechanicsville, predominantly black neighborhoods with ties to Martin Luther King, John Wesley Dobbs, and countless artists and musicians. The freeway literally dismembered these communities and ushered in a new era of crime, recession, and blight: "About one-third of [Atlanta's] existing housing stock was demolished by the highway program and urban renewal; 67,000 residents were displaced, 95 percent of them black. Most were renters, and so went uncompensated." Much the same scenario deformed cities across the country: Portland, New Orleans, Detroit, Boston, Miami. Just as the interstate system bureaucratized loss of control, it also manufactured slums, and, by extension, havens for predators. "The Atlanta child murders were a strikingly potent symbol for what a quarter century of urban redesign had wrought," Strand argues. "What happened in Atlanta showed how the remaking of our built world created an environment conducive to crime, and how it had fostered the victimization of poor children."

    There were counterstrikes against this encroaching ghettoization. In The Big Roads, Earl Swift recounts Baltimore's beleaguered but ultimately triumphant blockade of the city's proposed 10-D expressway, which would have displaced thousands of black residents and erected a virtual "Chinese Wall." Far too often, however, such grassroots activism was either steamrolled or failed to kindle in the first place. You can't fight city hall, the saying goes, much less the United States government. Beginning in 1939 — the year the Bureau of Public Roads presented President Roosevelt with a report entitled Toll Roads and Free Roads — the federal government tacitly rubberstamped the demolition of black neighborhoods. "Here and there," the Bureau's report read, "in the midst of the decaying slum areas, substantial new properties of various sorts are beginning to rise — some created by private initiative, some public. [These could] block the logical projection of the needed new arteries." Bottom line: In the face of progress, black communities are disposable.

    Strand mentions Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, an incendiary 1972 critique of New York's public housing. Although the book is now out of print, it was a bombshell when first published and remains the sin qua non of municipal architecture. Newman's argument, in a nutshell, is that a building's design — its materials, layout, even color palette — can prevent crime if properly administered. Strand cites the findings of a 1982 urban planning report that recast defensible space concepts as a kind of cautionary lesson:

    Low-crime neighborhoods were more residential and had fewer arterials or major streets, and their populations were less transient. High-crime neighborhoods had residents who moved a lot, were close to major roads, and included a lot of vacant lots. It seems like a glaringly obvious set of conclusions. But the implications were something that simply could not be said: Atlanta's urban renewal and expressway construction had, at the very least, built the stage on which the tragedy in Atlanta could unfold.

    The portable conclusion is that highways have vast, often irreversible effects on the people they traffic. I don't just mean the idea of highways or their cultural metonymies. I mean the physical road itself — its asphalt and plastic, ironwork and epoxy. We think we can control these things, and to some extent we can. But we can't control the amok human parade that transforms freeways into dreamways and also, sometimes, into homegrown killing fields. Pitted against America's windfall of barbarity, we must concede the limits of control.

    As a final, disturbing coda, Strand notes that America's highway system is a touchstone for developing nations like Mexico, China, and India. But does importing our infrastructure also mean inheriting a license to kill? Referring to Ciudad Juarez's apocalyptic kill-off, she writes:

    The violence in Mexico is the inevitable result of a culture that adopts American-style growth capitalism. In other words, the murders are not only the high cost of low prices, but an exaggerated reflection of something that happened in the United States too. Violence is what happens when a poor nation, a more vulnerable nation, is swept up in the same growth fever that transformed our own nation in less insidious but still significant ways.

    This lays one of those post hoc traps I mentioned earlier: Does mobility degrade the culture, or does the culture neutralize mobility enough to remain rational? Strand clearly opts for the former, but isn't it possible that in the thick of development these countries could evolve away from America's nightmarish excesses? The hope, admittedly dimmed by a half century of contrary evidence, is that our bloodlust is also purely narcissistic, a pure product of America. In the end, the answer may not even matter. As the Internet, the information superhighway, becomes the world's default reality, our byways and turnpikes will become ever more utilitarian, more subliminal, fossils recording the once incalculable distances between us.

    LARB Contributor

    Jeremy Lybarger studied literature and philosophy at New York University. His work has appeared in Mother JonesSalon, and The Brooklyn Rail. He lives in California.


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