Every road trip I take, I always imagine that this will be the one where I discover the real America. Now it’s not yet July and I’ve already driven a few thousand miles; I’ll drive a few thousand more in the next few weeks. I’m finally willing to concede that the forest of signs around every freeway exit might be as real as America gets these days. Let’s face it, folks: We’re a nation of Quality Inns. We’re a nation of Exxon Travel Plazas and outlet malls and Burger Kings. We’re a nation of Cracker Barrels: we love phony Americana tarted up to evoke nostalgia for a time none of us can reliably recall. Might as well accept it.
We had a breakdown in Tupelo and used the time to visit the birthplace of Elvis. To get there you drive through an endless retail strip, the same fast-food joints and tanning salons and muffler shops that have come to encrust the approaches to every city in America. Then you come to the tiny center of the old Tupelo, picturesque and placid and tastefully redesigned. And just beyond the Hilton Garden Inn you come to the little house where, they say, The King entered the world in 1935.
Hard to visualize today. Then it was Depression Mississippi, but now the Presley residence has an air-conditioning unit about the same size as the house. We joked that Elvis must have enjoyed having the gift shop so near, and the museum and chapel within easy walking distance. Ha ha. And then like everyone else we departed with a few snapshots and a fridge magnet, none the wiser about Elvis except that Mississippi can get pretty darned muggy in the middle of June.
When I travel, I like to get off the Interstate once in awhile. It’s a lot slower that way, but you occasionally glimpse some vestige of American individuality. We laughed at the hair salons called “Curl Up and Dye,” and “Carol’s Act of Faith Hair Care.” In Alabama we bought boiled peanuts from a roadside vendor, a raw-boned man with a Pall-Mall permanently installed at the side of his mouth. His accent was as thick as the humidity, and he seemed amused that we’d never had boiled peanuts before.
I think of classic road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and Easy Rider. Those stories just wouldn’t be the same on the Interstate; they wouldn’t be stories at all. Sure, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper might not have encountered the murderous rednecks if they’d taken I-20, but they wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting Jack Nicholson either. And somehow, I don’t think they’d much care for a night at the Super 8, free continental breakfast notwithstanding. That’s the way it is in 2010 America: What you gain in convenience, you lose in experience.