When writers claim to avoid interstates and fast-food restaurants in order to find the real America, get set for foolishness about old-time dialects, country crafts, and characters of the sort they don’t make anymore. Or so the writer will assure you, and praise himself (almost always it is a man) for being ballsy enough to turn off the four-lane and find real folks rooted in their region who can’t be confused with people three states away or even on the other side of the mountain. These are people, he’ll promise you, that it’s worth traveling to see because their identities remain rooted in the place and its past.
Most of these books are unbearably certain that you must follow the backroads or else be damned to live in a postmodern hell where everything looks the same and nothing has the savor of its place. And where, of course, there are no stories. It’s not that these travel writers take backroads to find the vivid, the salty, the forgotten that annoys me; it’s that they deny other roads lead there. If you read enough of these books, you’ll realize that Americans often locate their idea of the exotic in a pastoral world never known this side of the Atlantic. Although less ponderous than most, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways is the best-known recent example of the genre:
On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself. (xi)
Instead of a raft on the Mississippi or a whaling ship in the South Seas, Least Heat Moon made do with a Ford van he named “Ghost Dancer.” He could roam nineteenth-century America because he avoided those inter-states that burn their way across the map with only passing regard to topography or culture; he found his curious, gnarled characters by losing himself on blue highways. But you must remember, when reading his book, that he taught English before setting out and knew this country’s need to locate the authentic in little hamlets and sleepy burgs: Edwin Arlington Robinson in Maine, Sherwood Anderson in Ohio, Faulkner in Mississippi, Cather in Nebraska, Capote in Kansas. But each of them knew, as few travel writers of the backroads sort ever do, that small-town life is little different from life elsewhere. They put their places on the map precisely because they avoided nostalgia. If we are to follow them today, we must make our route, not on blue highways, but on the main roads of the imagination.
I think about this sometimes when I’m drinking coffee in a fast-food place along an interstate. Usually, I’ve driven too far that day and need to slow down; the discipline of hot coffee is that it takes more time than a cold drink. I like chain places because they clean the toilets and keep the place anonymous. They remind me that the most enviable of travelers—adaptable and graceful medievals like Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo—stuck to the main roads, the caravan routes, the pilgrimage ways. On the beaten track, they found what they needed: the exchange of goods, the ebb and flow of human beings moving about for all imaginable reasons, confirmation that life lies in motion and transfer. They knew that routes, like places, have their stories.
And so, on an early winter afternoon in a McDonald’s off I-90 in Erie, Pennsylvania, I looked up from my coffee to see a Japanese family settle into the next booth. They negotiated the business of fast-food America with perfect style though limited fluency in English. It was, I guess, little different for them here than in a McDonald’s at home. The beauty of chain places is that they keep us from making fools of ourselves when we travel. As the parents spoke to each other in Japanese, I heard “Cleveland” and saw them point to a map; then I heard “Toledo” and they pointed a few inches to the left. “Cleveland” and “Toledo” passed back and forth as they looked at their watches and then at their two kids. I think they decided to stop for the night in Cleveland because they turned to it in their guidebook.
This act of locating oneself on the road, of planning the next stop, occurs millions of times each day around the world. Trivial as the example before me seemed, it made me look at others in that McDonald’s and wonder how they located themselves on the edge of the interstate. There were teenagers in sweatshirts emblazoned “Penn State,” “Yale,” “Georgia Tech,” “Indiana”; a girl in a cheerleader jacket that read “Knoch”; a man in his forties, my age, in a shirt with “Dave” over one pocket and “Master Mold Co.” over the other. Some came in with the names of sports teams or sneaker companies across their fronts and were served at the counter by blond teenagers with nametags that said Amy, Katrina, Melissa, and by a Latino named Joe. Yes, it could have been anywhere in America. The colleges and teams would have different names elsewhere, but the need to declare an allegiance would remain. One could say, cynically, that they emblazon themselves with the identities of others because they are displaced and yet still need to belong somewhere. So they choose whatever lies closest to home; in Erie it’s “Pirates,” “Steelers,” “Pitt,” “Penn State,” “Slippery Rock.”
At such moments, it’s easy to feel superior to people on the edge of the interstate and to cherish instead the lure of the old days and back-roads. But that won’t help anyone understand place in America today. Is it the loneliness of these spaces, the certainty that one will meet only strangers along the way, the need to state where one comes from (literally or spiritually), that makes us rely on these emblazonings? Is it that the interstate becomes a metaphor for our condition of being in transit between places and finally at home in none of them? Or are the emblazonings tokens of the journey, like the badges made of base metal that medieval pilgrims back from Saint James of Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem wore on their breasts? These badges testified to the distances pilgrims would go to honor their faith or atone for their sins. They proclaimed that the wearer’s business on the highway was holy and thus to be respected. I don’t know that the people driving I-90 were searching for some holy shrine of their imagining or that they hoped to find a place with its own savor somewhere along the anonymous road. I could only feel that travelers and writers who turned off the highway for the old roads were distancing themselves from any possibility of speaking about how we travel now.
Fast-food America has its stories. The place itself can seem a never-changing belt along the interstate of neon, grease, sugar, diesel fumes. Most of it is ugly, little is built to last out the decade, and all of it obeys the imperative of speed that is, in America, the creation of space. The traveler’s law of thermodynamics, should it ever be written, would relate the desire for speed to the distance that must be traversed. That law would also predict casualties along the way. In a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sullivan, Missouri, off I-44, I found a graffito on the back of a stall door that could be read only as you sat on the toilet: “Because it’s fried shit, that’s why.” It was, in the idiom of the road, a cautionary message about too much driving and too much fast food. And if you wondered what it meant, you hadn’t spent enough time in transient America.
Sentimental travelers speak of old diners as shrines on the high-way; they had eccentricities of style, a suspicion of strangers, the best pie for miles. To see this nostalgia for the diner celebrated in, remarkably, a Burger King from the early 1990s is worth a long drive in itself. So go to Sheridan, Wyoming, off I-90 in the eastern and less fashionable part of the state. The place looks like every other Burger King: plastic, easy to clean, comfortable enough for a brief stop. The locals find it a useful breakfast club. The menu you already know from your hometown. But along one wall hangs a group of pictures meant to remake the place in an older image. “The Runaway” by Norman Rockwell shows a benevolent cop and a little boy sitting next to each other on stools in a diner. Under the boy’s stool is his bindle staff, his hobo gear. The story is simple: cop, boy, diner all belong to a time when boys did boys’ mischief in running away, cops remembered their own boyhoods when bringing them home, and the counterman was a friend to both. Next is a stark black-and-white photograph of a diner countertop by Paul Hoffman that makes the usual salt-and-pepper shakers, chrome napkin dispensers, ashtrays, and the like seem chic, even monumental. Finally, a poster from the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York’s Soho, of all places, shows a painting by Ralph Goings of a diner in a landscape much like that outside this same Burger King.
The message was clear: the diners you miss from your childhood or (more likely) from memories of someone else’s have been reconstructed here in the franchise restaurant. The rituals of life continue in the landscape. And so you will discover if you listen to the conversations around you: the exchange of news between a soldier’s wife home for a visit and her former high-school teacher; the time-worn stories passed among retired ranchers idling away the June morning when they’d rather have been out working; the flow of greetings and news that sustains life and makes for community. If you sit there long enough with your coffee and aren’t intrusive—it helps to read the local paper; you will seem less alien above a familiar headline—then you will see that all of this coming and going is the life of the place. Here in a building that looks like thousands of others, the transient is anchored to some sense of home, the international is made local, the stories of the place get told beneath pictures of old diners, the travel writer finds material. It’s as close to the real America as anyone will ever get—or could survive finding.
Least Heat Moon, William. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1982.