Quirky examples of roadside Americana, mined from recent personal experience:
• A life-size replica of the Holy City of Jerusalem, quite naturally located in rural Mississippi
• A swamp attraction apparently featuring life-size animatronic animals
• The proud prowess of the Gulf Coast Stamp Club
• The world’s largest gummy bears
• More sites, buildings, and roads named after Jefferson Davis than I cared to count
• Screaming hot, suicidal, positively lethal hot sauce – of course all proclaimed to be the world’s hottest
• Billboards beseeching passersby to stop and see a REAL LIVE TIGER, or HOLD A BABY GATOR!
• A gator rodeo, aka motorboat swamp expedition
• A local (and apparently annual) frog festival
• A local (and apparently also annual) rabbit festival – in a different place
• Texas flags and home decor and pickup trucks
• The ever-so-Texas institution of Buc-ee’s, or as a friend of mine put it, “the Disneyland of all gas stations”
What is all this, America? Tourist trapping, grand spectacle-raising, hyperbolic proclamations and celebrations of flavor and symbolism and voyeurism and sometimes just simple, undeniable kitsch. Both the local and the supposedly exotic, the expansive and banal, spinning out against the landscapes of the interstate. Cultures collide and then consolidate into one thing known as Americana, centered in its own attempted sense of the marvelous and the extraordinary. That extraordinary can be found here, yes, even among the otherwise unremarkable stretch of land in between rural Southern towns, if only one stops, pulls over, looks for it – and of course doles out a couple extra bucks for the privilege. The little-known wonders of America proclaim themselves as such, for any lone traveler in search of that wonder.
I didn’t stop and see anything on this list – with the exception of Buc-ee’s (quite the destination) and the stamp collection, which greeted me (along with an earnest sign celebrating all the welcoming smiles of Louisiana) at one interstate rest stop/tourist information center. Still, the senses of disorientation, hucksterism, and spectacle that I’ve encountered on this trip have brought roaring back all the complex, strange things that amuse, trouble, fascinate, puzzle, entertain, and provoke me about America. On the road, in its unfamiliar unfolding scenery, these signs beseech us to believe that anything can happen – even in a place where the mundane sweep of capitalism is at its best and nothing more surprising actually does happen than Wendy’s and KFC. Anything can happen, and anything can make claims to being the world’s largest, most astounding thing. Yes, even gummy bears in south Louisiana. Where does all this kitsch end up? How do the traditions develop? Where does it all come from? Who drives it? Who believes in it? Who simply wants to believe? And why?
I’ve almost been prompted to read more on the idea of American kitsch and American roadside spectacle based on this road trip – proving that one, indeed, can turn anything into an object of theoretical academic inquiry. But, that joking aside, the most rewarding part of this drive, and any other travel, is spending time with people. I’ve taken time to stop and see some close and very dear friends on the way, to explore and chat and sit and read and write. (Among the week’s reading: Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. Along with another book on the confusions of travel, called Bewildered Travel. I did allow myself a fitting reading list.) We’ve eaten and complained about the Texas heat, and also discussed and complained about politics and Brexit. Further continuing my faith in the rewards of Deaf networks and the global Deaf community, I met some new friends-of-friends for drinks one night. More on the power of this network some other time. These people and conversations continue to be my favorite parts of travel, all side curiosities aside. But, oh, how we've also all talked about these American roadside gems and the lingering relevance (and oddity) of place.
Now, one more stretch of driving ahead, through the exciting plains of west Texas into New Mexico, and then I’ll be back in the Land of Enchantment! Upcoming: several more hours of surprising, spectacular Texas roadside kitsch.