Travel with Open Eyes
Earlier this month (October 2016) my wife and I finished a five thousand five hundred mile round trip that covered eleven (11) States from Texas, to the Oregon coast, and then back again to the Texas Hill Country. A conscience effort was made during this trip to look for political signs along the way (presidential election cycle), as well as to take note of the style of homes used by most Americans as we chugged along. I was specifically looking for how homesteads varied among the States and regions.
The roads we used were mostly less traveled back roads except for Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, which were covered exclusively on the Interstate. Our intent was to arrive in Oregon as fast as possible, as our desire was to spend as much time as possible with family, and then leisurely meander our way back home on the return..
The route and specifics are not so important as the subtle changes that we encountered. Along the way, we drove through scorching heat, two snowstorms, a wicked lightning storm, a honest to goodness dust storm, and a raging wind storm on the western coast of Oregon. We also noticed the types of cars preferred by drivers in the various states, as well as distinct driving habits.
The Arby’s-Chicken Line
In past bygone days, there was a line of demarcation among the various States of the Confederacy and the Union. Back then, the line was based upon the status of whether a State sanctioned slavery. The Mason-Dixon Line, as it was known, still exists today, but in another form and for different reasons. Known as the Arby’s-Chicken Line, it is a very obvious fixture in the landscape. Going north, the last obvious Chick-Fil-A seen was in Oklahoma. From there, every city north and west, from the smallest hamlet to the largest metropolis, had an Arby’s roast beef restaurant visible from the road. The distinctive sign of Arby’s dominated the smaller towns along the way, much in the same way that the Chick-Fil-A brand dominated southern towns. While you can find a Chick-Fil-A in Boise Idaho and an Arby’s in Austin Texas, they appear to be more of an experiment when compared to the obvious cultural demarcation between the mountain west and the south. Perhaps Arby’s is popular in the rural land because Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and Idaho are large producers of beef. I can also report that Oregon does have Arby’s along the coast and in smaller towns along the way, albeit not as common as in the smaller towns in States east of Oregon. The oddest restaurant sighting, however, was a Schlotzsky’s Deli in Bend Oregon. Who would have guessed that we would have seen that? For those who don’t know – Schlotzsky’s is an Austin Texas based joint with a Czechoslovakian twist. Czech heritage plays a big role in Texas cuisine.
The first time I drove across the United States I was a young passenger for six weeks in my parents Ford station wagon. The travel rage at the time was not social media on iPhones or GPS navigation, but Citizens Band (CB) Radio. The speed limit was 55mph nationwide and truckers and cars both used the CB for convenience. With it, travelers formed a polite traveling community. Headlights and brake lights became signals for “you’re good” and “Thank You” when passing, or warning of danger ahead, or a “bear” (State Troopers tend to wear smokey the bear hats) was ahead waiting in a speed trap. My handle on the CB was Backseat Rider, and listened and talked with truckers – with my parents permission – across the entire United States.
Road behavior has since changed from the days of my youth. Imagine a couple of 18 wheelers at the bottom of a hill, the trailing truck has a 2mph advantage over the lead truck. Then, imagine a group of four cars in the left lane – each going 80mph about to pass the two trucks. But, the truck in back with his 2mph advantage pulls into the left lane to pass the slower 55mph truck. He then stays in the left lane as the highway climbs – no additional passing lane for slow vehicles here – and a gaggle of passenger vehicles gathers behind the “fast” truck. At the top of the hill, with both trucks going at least 45mph, the truck in the slow lane suddenly picks up speed as the heavy load he carries gives him the advantage and the roles are reversed.
Now, imagine this happening with the same two trucks over four hills for 10 miles. The driver of the SWIFT truck – an ironic name for a trucking fleet if any was ever given – was the first driver which I bestowed the honor of calling “dumbass” during the trip. He earned it. .
Now, it’s not just dumbass truck drivers that earned this title the rest of the trip, but dumbass drivers of other vehicles as well. I use the term “dumbass” to describe a driver who does something so idiotic in the face of logic and common sense, but they could be nothing other than a dumbass. Pulling out into oncoming traffic on a wet road in Nebraska, without giving sufficient space for other drivers to slow down? Dumbass. Traversing across four lane of traffic, from the far left passing lane all the way over to the “exit only” lane in Boise Idaho – with less than a few hundred feet to spare while going 65mph? Dumbass. The motorcycle driver who banana boats between lanes and between a couple of dumbass truck drivers – thinking he’s all that and a bag of chips? Dumbass.
Not Yet Complete
But a special award given during this road trip goes not to drivers on the road – but an entire crew of construction flag wavers between Corvallis and Newport Oregon. On this particular stretch of road, a new section is being built to bypass the town of Eddyville. The road is “not yet complete” but it appears complete for approximately 5 miles. Then it ends. Kaput. Notta. No more road. Standing at the construction entrance of the “not yet complete” road was a crew of flag wavers and traffic controllers. Their job was to stop traffic when construction traffic was exiting or entering the new “not yet completed” road. All it took was one driver to turn into the new “not yet completed” road and then speed along at 75mph on a nice new stretch of road before every driver behind did the same thing. Car after car and vehicle after vehicle turned onto the “not yet complete” road and turned towards the coast. The flaggers were giggling no doubt. I can imagine them saying, “hey, these people are nuts. Bwahahaha!” as they watched in glee. After driving four miles at 75mph on brand new road – suddenly there was a traffic jam. It did seem odd that there was no traffic on the other side of the road.
Suddenly, it dawned on me. This road is “not yet complete”. As I turned around and sped the other way – a few other cars (and dumbass truck drivers with CBs) did the same thing. When we once again reached the construction entrance, the co-pilot rolled down her window and yelled to one of the flaggers, “does the old road still go to Newport?” He replied, “Yes ma’am, it does!” I swear you could see him grinning, laughing at the people who made the turn on the “not yet complete” road. As I turned west, I could see that the traffic jam was unjammed – doing the same thing as I had done. So, should the flagmen of the “not yet complete” road be classified as “dumbass”? I don’t now. At this point, I’m thinking “asshats” would be more appropriate – as they didn’t warn or signal any driver that they shouldn’t enter or drive the “not yet complete” road for any reason. But, whether they were dumbasses or asshats didn’t matter much to the kind people of Eddyville. They were sitting in their lawn chairs watching the free entertainment themselves – drinking their coffee, and taking bets on which drivers would turn down the “not yet complete” road.
Hillbillies Across America
Driving across such a wide expanse of land affords an opportunity to notice difference in culture between the various regions. You tend to disregard the dumbasses on the road, and the incidental road construction itself when you’re looking out your window. The differences are not limited by State boundary lines so much as geologic features, such as mountains and deserts. This journey revealed a distinct and real variation of culture. The traditional hillbilly is someone who lives in a hollow in the Appalachian Mountains. I’m speaking of my own people – on my mother’s side – who live in the hills along the Ohio River and eked out a living by farming tobacco on steep hills and making mountain dew. They crafted their own homes, building them with local timber and other essential home items. My grandfather didn’t have electricity until the mid-50s in his farmhouse which he built. It also didn’t have running water – until he installed a pump in the mid-60s. Regardless, they were stereotypical hillbillies – kind, God fearing, honest, but poor and without an education beyond high school. Think of a cabin in a hollow that gets 2 hours of sunlight every day, a dirt road leading up to the cabin, crossing a creek with a couple of trees put into place by a team of mules. That’s a hillbilly to me, as I have experienced the term in real life.
Starting in Oregon, the prototypical hillbilly has essentially the same characteristics, except the Oregon hillbilly will likely have a college degree, have a beard, wear socks with sandals, and wear a dyed t-shirt. Their homes are made of wood, from the local pine forests from the local lumber mills – painted in baby blues and greens. Their trucks are newer 4 wheel drive vehicles – but the grass and the trees are well groomed and trimmed.
Moving east to Idaho, the same farmer now drives a 4 wheel vehicle with a 6” lift kit and oversized BFG tires, and he wears a cowboy hat, overalls, and wears work boots. Moving along further to Utah, he drives the same truck as in Idaho, but he loses the cowboy hat and overalls in favor of jeans and a button down shirt. Moving east again, the Wyoming cowboy drives a more substantial truck, keeps the jeans, add a cowboy hat, and for the first time cowboy boots are common as are belt buckles. The Wyoming homes are humble, but sturdy enough to withstand a long winter and provide heat to the inhabitants within the walls. Moving further east into Nebraska, homes don’t have fences, the lawns appear perfectly manicured and tidy, and even the old rusty truck sitting out front has no weeds surrounding it. The farmers are straight laced, clean shaven, and their land is surrounded by corn. Lots of corn. Moving south, into Missouri, the farmer starts to resemble a cross between an appalachian hillbilly, a Nebraska farmer, and a southern redneck. We drove in the dark through most of Missouri, but the impression was one of home comforts. Even further south, into Arkansas, simple country folk were sharing stories over breakfast at the local cafe, driving old dependable Chevy trucks, selling local produce, with most wearing a picture of a running red pig on their clothes. Moving south one more time, into Texas, the same kind and friendly demeanor is observed, the vehicles change from the four wheel drive to the two wheel variety, but often you’ll see dual-wheel rear axle pulling a livestock trailer. Men are seen as manly, with a ranching culture replacing that of the farm.
The agrarian American that lives closest to the land, loves the land. Common among all varieties of the agrarian American is a overt love of country, proudly displaying the American flag on a pole on his property. I mentioned earlier in this blog post that we consciously looked for presidential campaign signs in support of either Mrs. Bill Clinton or Mr. Donald J. Trump. I must report that the total number of Hillary Clinton signs seen during our five thousand five hundred mile trip consisted of a solitary sign in front of a convenience store in Texas. The total number of Trump signs seen were in the hundreds, from humble signs in front of homes, larger signs on barns, and one very large sign on a wyoming ranch that covered the winter hay under a tarp. A very large sign was over the tarp which carried the Trump name, and another hay bale with the Trump campaign theme a couple of miles further along the road. I was very surprised by this, as I had imagine that we would see an equal number of signs of support among the two leading candidates.
Adventures to come
Road trips are adventures in and of themselves. I love traveling across country by passenger vehicle. Some people claim the title of “travel photographer” when all they do is fly from city to city and observe life in a microscope focused tightly in their destination. If you ask me, I believe that the real adventure occurs not only in the destination, but along the road in the many small cities along the way. I’m working on some future articles that will detail some road trip lessons learned that will hopefully help you find the same magic that I find as I travel across the country. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about these adventures to come.