Concrete Progress: America the Beautiful

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.

Ponies. Conestogas. Hand carts. Biplanes. Campers. Choppers. No matter the vehicle, Americans have always struck out for the horizon.

I’m taking a Mini Cooper.

You’ve got to get from sea to shining sea somehow, and after my sister moved overseas, her Mini, all 37 MPG of it, seemed like a better bet than my aging Camry. Plus, I can park it in a storage closet and still open the doors the whole way.

I’m driving from Santa Cruz, California, to northern Vermont. If you haven’t been to Santa Cruz, it’s essentially a combination of Surfin’ USA, and Workingman’s Dead. My wife and I are leaving California because we enjoy dark weather, damp afternoons, and chipping ice off the driveway with a screwdriver, and because we want to stay inside all day writing our doctoral dissertations.

But along with the many other delights you can find only when Fall Comes To New England, the trip is a stellar opportunity to reimagine infrastructure on a continental scale. My wife is flying East with our cats, so I’ll be driving solo, patriotic tunes ringing in my ears. It will be a week of new innovations and ancient landscapes and soaring vistas and can-do spirit. Also, I will eat at a Cracker Barrel.

I’ve never visited most of the places on my itinerary, so I feel free to indulge in broad assumptions, mixed with a little light Googling. You, in turn, should feel free to laugh at my ignorance. But one thing that I’m quite sure of, looking ahead, is that I’ll find people building with their landscapes. The point of “America the Beautiful,” it seems to me, is that we have all these different resources—mountains and seas and grain and skies—spread out across the continent. But only recently have communities begun to discover the full potential of their own geography. A lot of reimagining infrastructure begins with looking at the land and asking simple questions: What’s the weather like here? How’s the soil? How can we travel in this landscape? What do we need to do to live here, and what’s the best way to do it?

In different places there are different answers. If the trip goes the way I hope, you’ll hear about some of these answers in the months ahead.

I’ll strike east out of California, over the Sierra and into Nevada, then across the desert to Utah, where Brigham Young’s irrigating Mormons dug some of the first large-scale infrastructure in the West. The Mormons, between the exhortations of a newly vocal God and the arid reality of the desert, worked unbelievably hard to bring freshwater to the Salt Lake Valley. Nowadays, their descendants are once again remaking their lives by putting in geothermal climate systems. Utah gets baking hot and snowy cold—they’re proud enough to depict this on their license plates—but underground the temperature’s a consistent fifty to sixty degrees. Geothermal technology uses this to make summer and winter mild and pleasant.

I continue east through the dirty-blonde hills to Colorado. Coloradans have been turning amber waves of grain into amber bottles of beer since pioneers arrived on the Front Range, but lately, at the New Belgium Brewing Company, they’ve found that spacious skies mean plenty of sun and wind, and they’re using that power to make their beer. New Belgium’s example helped start a nationwide ferment—brewers all over America are now crafting sustainable lagers and ales.

Down from the purple mountain majesties and across the fruited plain, the wind twists into cyclones. In 2007, little Greensburg, Kansas, got blown halfway to Oz by a monster tornado. A disaster . . . but also an opportunity. Greensburg looked around at its vacant lots and open spaces and, riffing off its name, rebuilt itself into an LED-lit, LEED-certified, eco-friendly town. They, too, run on wind: Kansas is the third-windiest place in the country.

From Kansas I drive northeast through the Midwest, across the invisible meridian that divides Arid America from Damp America, and on to the Fresh Coast. The Fresh Coast is not, as I’d hoped, a nationwide fish taco chain; it’s the Great Lakes. When we think of coastal communities we usually think of Santa Barbara or Cape Cod, but in many ways Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a seaside town. And like many seaside towns, it’s been challenged by water pollution. With three rivers feeding into Lake Michigan, and with a population of roughly 1.6 million people, they have a lot of water and a lot of waste, but they’ve also had a lot of success. Milwaukee’s always been an innovative place, and I look forward to learning the secrets of Milorganite, the wonder-product that comes out of the city’s water treatment plants.

From Milwaukee, the Mini and I will ride a ferry across Lake Michigan, an experience that could only be more exciting if I were nine years old again. Across Michigan’s Mitten I go, and then over the border and into Toronto. People always seem to begin descriptions of Toronto with “actually” and then throw in some disclaimers before telling you that it’s great. To judge by the creative use the city’s making of the deep, cold waters of Lake Erie, I have no doubt of Toronto’s actual coolness.

Have you ever driven across New York? I have, and it always took years, no matter how fast I’d go. But it will end, and I’ll swing by Great Barrington, home of Orion. From there I turn north, into the intensely pastoral charm of Vermont. Like a salmon returning to its tiny creek from the great ocean, the Mini will surge up a series of smaller and smaller roads, past cuter and cuter barns—and brand-new wind turbines—before finally shuddering to a halt on a dead-end dirt track in the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom. And thus my autumn will begin, and I will get to share these places with you.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.


  1. Safe trip, pilgrim, and glad to hear Toronto’s on the radar, it’s home to good infrastructure ideas like the Renewable Energy Co-operative that develops community-owned renewable energy projects:

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