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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

ONU professor drives his Corvette around the U.S. on the interstates


LAPPING AMERICA: A MAN, A CORVETTE, AND THE INTERSTATE. By Claude Clayton Smith. Burford Books. 320 pages, $16.95.

Lapping America is a first-person homage to the oft-maligned limited-access highway that has helped define American travel for the past five decades.

Smith, who dreamed of taking one giant lap around America, wrote his book in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the Federal Interstate Highway System last month. The U.S. Department of Transportation unabashedly calls June 29, 1956, which marks the start of work on the Eisenhower Interstate System, the beginning of the greatest public works project in history.

Lapping America takes a look at the result of an ambitious project that has its roots, or maybe routes, in Hitler's autobahn, designed to move goods and troops quickly through wartime Germany.

But Smith offers more than a travelogue through the windshield of a his red '96 Corvette. He also shares insights into the idiosyncrasies of the regions.

His drive begins at his home in Ada, Ohio, leading up I-75 to the I-80/90 turnpike, where he turns right to reach Maine. Then it's down to Florida, around to California and Washington, and finally eastward back home.

As he crosses the invisible state boundaries, Smith meets fellow travelers and truckers. With inquisitive eyes and ears open for regional differences, he questions them about life on the road and how they see the four-lane transformation of America.

At each "corner" of America, Smith plants a small "interstate flag" to mark major changes in his trip's direction.

His choice of car for the four-wheeled odyssey was symbolic: a six-speed LT4 Corvette coupe, a car he says represents the "speed, power, wealth, style, and mobility" of America.

Smith's tale may prompt in some a yearning to return to life in the slow lane of pre-interstate America, before broad ribbons of concrete cut into the landscape and leveled hills.

The book nostalgically recalls a time not so long ago when a 10,000-mile road trip in a Corvette could seem affordable, with premium gas $1.50 a gallon.

During his 20 years at ONU, Smith instituted the English department's visiting writer's program, bringing to campus writers such as John Updike, Edward Albee, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.

Lapping America marks his seventh book, and he currently has a novel, From the Florida Room, circulating in search of a publisher. It was a semifinalist for the Peter Taylor Award and the Dana Award. Smith took early retirement this spring to continue writing full-time.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com or 419-724-6078.

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