ON THE ROAD REVISITED
by Larry FeignThe roadside billboard promised: Mortars – Best Prices – Next Exit.
"Who wants to shop for bombs and explosives?" I called out.
"Me!" my son Ivan roared from the back seat.
"Think they have skyrockets?" Annika, my 14-year-old daughter, said.
I flipped the turn signal and eased the car into the right lane.
"You've got to be kidding!" said my wife. Of course she would say that. She was the only one in the car who wasn't American by birth. Lust for violent contraptions wasn't in her DNA.
As we pulled off Interstate 95 somewhere in the middle of South Carolina, the pine trees and blossom-heavy dogwoods which lined the highway gave way to a charm-free highway stop, featureless except for several gas stations, each with a mini-mart, and some fast food franchises. And, in this case, three competing warehouse-sized fireworks stores. I located the one advertising the mortars.
"How y'all doin'," said a young guy in tight jeans and a brushy blond crewcut slouching by the entrance next to a stack of American flags. His obvious boredom was in total contrast to the excitement coursing through my veins at the sight of about a mile of shelves holding nothing but explosives and incendiary devices. They had everything from industrial-sized containers of hand-held sparklers to pinwheels, bottle rockets, ground chasers and miniature bombs. Everything made in China, of course. Then there were the promised mortar boxed sets, complete with launch cylinders.
"These're professional grade fireworks," crew cut explained. "This one here'll shoot 300 yards in the air, then explode different colours, just like the pro displays you see."
"Please can we buy some?" Annika said.
"I'm not sure how we'd get them on the plane back to Hong Kong," I said.
"We can hand carry them," Ivan said. "Can you imagine when they x-ray the carry-ons? Ha!"
We left without buying, to my wife's enormous relief. But I didn't have to buy. I was gratified just to look, simply to know that I could, if I wanted to, pull off the side of any highway in South Carolina and arm myself with enough ballistic warheads to make even Kim Jong-Il jealous.
"Don't you love America?" I said as we pulled back onto the Interstate.
I was finally keeping the promise made to my kids a few years ago, to give them the ultimate American cultural experience: the road trip. French children grow up drinking wine, Mongolians are raised on horseback, and Hong Kong kids grow up calculating derivatives futures. But Americans grow up in the back seat of a car. Spending most of their lives in Hong Kong had left my two children culturally deprived.
We picked up the car, a completely unremarkable American-made Chrysler, in Atlanta. There we paid our respects at the epicentres of American cultural imperialism--Coca-Cola--and American journalistic hegemony--CNN. Then we drove four hours to the coast of Georgia and the dreamy city of Savannah, all quiet Southern charm, Old South architecture and Spanish moss drooping from the trees. It tried to seduce us into lingering just a while longer. But we had a car trip to continue, and another thousand miles to go.
A road trip isn't about getting from one place to another. The finest cross-country journeys have no purpose whatsoever. When I was a young man living in southern California, it was perfectly normal for me or one of my friends to interrupt the boredom by saying, "Let's drive to Boston." Within hours, two or three of us would have thrown some spare clothes into a duffel bag, stuck a cooler in the back seat of a VW Bug, and zoomed off into the twilight for five days of continuous driving, stopping only to refuel, eat greasy french fries at truck stops, and to switch drivers. We chattered, spun the radio dial, gorged on snacks and donuts, and lived life one highway exit at a time.
The destination wasn't the point. From inside a car there was no feeling of trajectory anyway. The surface of the planet rolled beneath us as we remained stationery in time and space. If Einstein had been born in America he probably would have thought up his Theory of Relativity while driving across country high on caffeine.
To get up and go is the American way. Lewis and Clark were the ultimate American heroes, establishing a tradition of the Great American Road Trip, which culminated in Armstrong and Aldrin's jaunt to the Moon. Who else but Americans would have said, "Hey, I know, let's pack as many guys as we can into a vehicle and just drive, drive, drive till we get to the frigging Moon!"
My wife was already an initiate into this way of life. Our honeymoon had been a road trip: six weeks of driving around the USA, staying in camp sites and cheap motels. But my kids were long overdue for this crucial rite of passage.
We left Savannah and headed north. We thought we'd find any old cheap motel along the way to spend the night, somewhere in North Carolina. But we got sidetracked and stopped in Mexico instead.
Not the real Mexico.
Somewhere in the middle of South Carolina billboards started to appear by the side of the highway, featuring an outrageously stereotyped Mexican bandito named Pedro.
Pedro's weather forecast South of the Border: Chili today, hot tamale!120 billboards later (that's the official count, according to the South Carolina Department of Tourism) a 10-story-tall moustachioed Pedro welcomed us to South of the Border.
South of the Border: You never sausage a place!
South of the Border: Roads' Scholar!
It was a square mile of kitsch, so named because it is just south of the border between the states of North and South Carolina. It included Mexican-themed rides and activities ("Golf of Mexico"), shops ("El Drug Store"), restaurants, a motel (with honeymoon suites!), two fireworks stores, and three enormous souvenir shops selling Mexican-themed junk souvenirs—inflatable cactus, sombrero ash trays—made so cheaply in China that much of it disintegrated just from the force of being looked at.
My children, being worldly, sophisticated international travellers, were appalled when I said, "Let's stay here tonight."
"You've got to be joking!" Ivan said.
"No way!" said Annika.
"Oh come on," I said. I gestured to the 200-foot-tall red, white and green sombrero tower. "You won't any find this sort of thing anywhere else on earth."
"What about Window Of The World in Shenzhen?" Annika said.
"All right, you got me there. This is only the second-tackiest place on earth. But Window Of The World doesn't have its own motel!"
We checked into the South of the Border Motel, the kind where you drive right up to your room, then went out to dine at the Sombrero Room Restaurant, which boasted "the best Mexican food in northern South Carolina."
The rest of the evening turned into a ridiculous romp through souvenir stores and hat shops and running through parking lots. By the time we returned to the motel, the kids were converts. This was the way to enjoy the real USA. Drive, drive, drive, then make a spontaneous decision to stop and stay and savour the beauty, even when it isn't beautiful.
I felt cruel dragging my kids back to Hong Kong, where cars are a nuisance rather than a way of life, where people can pass through an entire lifetime without experiencing the feelings of liberation and immortality of being on the road.
As for those mortars, we can probably find the same in Shenzhen. Though I suspect they wouldn't be quite as much fun.
This article appeared in CULTURE Magazine, May 2009 | ©2009 Larry Feign