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Driving the blue-collar highway, where the Porsches don't roam

The world is filled with dreamy, picture-book roads. Then there's Interstate 75.

If you held a freeway beauty pageant, I-75 would not be invited. Interstate 75 is a length of concrete that carries you through some of dullest terrain in America – yes, the Tennessee Hills are gorgeous, but you have to endure the Ohio plains to get there.

This is not the Pacific Coast Highway, with its crashing surf, golden hills and celebrity golf courses. Interstate 75 is lined with trailer parks, concrete dinosaurs and redneck emporiums where you can buy a lawn jockey statue or a case of ammunition. No one dreams of driving Interstate 75 – you take it because you need to get somewhere.

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And yet I love it anyway.

I took my first trip down I-75 in 1986, when I was overcome by a sudden urge to visit a gliding site located near Chattanooga, Tenn. Since then, I've driven I-75 an average of three times a year, drawn south again and again like a motorized lemming.

On my previous trip a couple of weeks ago, I tried to pin down what it is that I like about Interstate 75. Then it dawned on me. After close to a hundred trips on I-75, I had never seen a Ferrari. Nor had I spotted a Rolls-Royce or a Lamborghini.

In most of the places I inhabit, you see these cars on a fairly regular basis. Not on I-75. This is the domain of the beater sedan, the family SUV and the pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window and a trailer hitch coupled to a metal-flake bass boat. Interstate 75 is the highway of Middle America, a place where the Porsches do not roam. And there are times when you need that.

My travels on Interstate 75 have provided an ongoing education on North American culture and driving habits. I-75's demographics include a high concentration of Florida-bound Canadians, camouflage-wearing hunters, cars repaired with duct tape and women who apply their makeup while they drive in the fast lane. Interstate 75 is also home to what may well be the world's largest indigenous population of left-lane hogs.

A journey down I-75 is not unlike life itself, with long stretches of boredom interspersed with moments of wonder and terror. On one trip, an 18-wheeler flipped over a concrete barrier, launching a load of massive steel pipes into my lane. On another, my wife and I spotted a motorhome with a wire crate of live ducks strapped to the rear bumper. Then there was the time I walked into a Tennessee truck stop to see a driver field-stripping a tooled-silver handgun on the lunch counter.

Although there are moments of natural and architectural beauty, much of I-75's run is through postindustrial, Rust-Belt America. For many drivers, the I-75 journey starts in Detroit, where it takes you through a sobering landscape of abandoned homes and shuttered businesses.

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Farther south, you hit Lima, Ohio. Once upon time, Lima was a vibrant manufacturing centre that made locomotives and army tanks. Now, it's an economic wasteland, its production stripped away by the forces of global economics.

The sociology of I-75 is blue collar. On every trip, I see at least half a dozen cars broken down beside the highway, with their owners hunched over the smoking engine, or their legs sticking out from beneath the chassis as they attempt to wire up a fallen muffler. The scene invariably reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's epic novel about the Joad family's journey to California – like the broken-down car owners of Interstate 75, the Joads were poor and they fixed their own machines beside the road.

As a young man, I used to do that myself. I liked taking long trips, but my cars were old and I didn't have money for repairs. So I travelled with a toolbox and a collection of spare parts. Today, I travel in perfect new cars and nothing ever goes wrong. But in the 1970s, when I traversed the continent on worn-out cylinders and leaking valves, every trip was an odyssey and I earned every mile.

And so, Interstate 75 is a bit of a time machine – as I pass the roadside breakdowns I'm reminded of the old days. I don't want to live them again, but they were great days.

I've driven a lot of roads since then. The California coast was great in a new Tesla Model S. So was the German Autobahn in a factory-fresh 911 Carrera 4S. Ditto for England in a Jaguar F-Type.

But I still love Interstate 75, and` its endless, plebeian charm. Like they say: Give me a home where the Porsches don't roam.

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