Billboards

“From start to finish I found no strangers.  If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively.  But these are my people and this my country.  If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

One of our sources of information, wonder, and hilarity on our long journey across the desert was billboards, a form of mobile advertising for a mobile society. These days they even alternate; two or three adverts (a.k.a. advertisements) will cycle through on a single electronic billboard, just in case you happen to be sitting in traffic. They wouldn’t want you to get bored looking at the same ad for more than five seconds. These billboards are sparse, though still present, on the open road in the middle of long sections of still-wild land. But they build in a crescendo of marketing as you near what counts as civilization, until they reach their riotous climax in the heart of the next city.

We saw billboards advertising the newest models of pickup trucks: “It swallowed a luxury car.” “If it were any tougher it would be making its own license plate.” Steinbeck knew that American automobiles “are made to wear out so that they must be replaced.” (43) This is “the greatest selling appeal of all – one that crawls through nearly all American life. Improvements are made on these [models] every year. If you are doing well you turn yours in on a new model…if you can possibly afford to. There’s status to that.” (76) Not much has changed, apart from the ubiquity of the advertisements trying to convince you to trade up so you can move up.

But America has also moved into whole new realms of advertising. Even hospitals need billboards these days. We saw one depicting a man on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. He looked strangely content under the circumstances, and the slogan in huge letters across this incongruous scene read, “Take me to Swedish.” It was clearly his choice of hospital that made him forget his potentially life-threatening injury. A byline at the bottom of the billboard informed us that the emergency room is open 24/7, as if there were any other option.

You know healthcare is in a sad state when you need to pay for advertisements for hospitals. As if anyone who’s just been found bleeding copiously at the site of a serious car accident will say to the police or paramedics, “Take me to Swedish. I saw their ad, and their ER is open 24/7. Looks like a nice place.” Of course not. If you need the ER you’re going to go to the nearest one, because that’s the definition of emergency.

A billboard for a new wing at Presbyterian Hospital advertised their 34 new private rooms. Because who wants to share?

The highways are also blemished with dozens of billboards for personal injury lawyers. They even have blogs and websites with names like “justice for victims,” as if “justice” and “victim” are words that should be applied to car accidents. This is how important words and concepts lose all real meaning. You’re not a victim because someone accidentally rear-ends you at a stoplight; that’s an accident. That’s why it’s called an accident.

We wonder whether it’s too easy in America to lose sight of what real suffering is. We’ve even commoditized victimhood. The idea that you can put a price on justice is a fundamental misunderstanding of what justice is. Advertising becomes a way to borrow nobility and apply it to the ignoble random occurrences of life.

Together with ideas of justice and victimhood, the concept of need has lost its anchor in reality. At one point we drove past an enormous grey warehouse called the Windchime Center. Because you need a whole center devoted to something as essential as windchimes. Tourist routes in the Southwest are lined with rock shops. Just in case you couldn’t find a suitable rock on your own, Dave’s Rocks can meet all your rock-buying needs. Advertising no longer caters to our needs; beginning with Henry Ford all the way through its latest incarnation in Steve Jobs, advertising creates wants and repackages them as needs.

In no place on our travels was this invention of new necessities more evident than in Los Angeles. LA is packed from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, stuffed several stories deep with every conceivable thing its citizens could invent or imagine. When we revisited Denver, we noticed that many things had changed. There was new urban sprawl, new houses, new businesses. But revisiting LA, there was no room for new sprawl. The only way to go is up, and this is evident in the advertising methods, the huge number of billboards and sky signs and enormous banners towed behind tiny airplanes, all pushing some new artificial necessity of plastic, steel, or silicon. And somewhere, sometime, someone says, “Hey, I need that!”

Roots

“Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need.  Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”

As a nation of immigrants, Steinbeck thought we were drifters by nature. Maybe that is more true of some of us than others. People often tell us they wish they could travel like we do, but then they always ask questions about roots, security, financial stability. Perhaps these are vocalizations of their own fears, and the “roots” metanarrative is a myth society propagates so it can profit from taxes and promote ownership.

All over the world, governments are trying to stamp out rootlessness. It’s increasingly about counting, controlling, pinning people down. Bedouin, Roma, Indonesian boat people – the states whose boundaries they traverse are trying to force them to settle down. Maybe Steinbeck was right and travelers are not iconoclasts; we’re just doing what’s natural in spite of the myths. In some cases, as Steinbeck notes elsewhere, myth becomes reality through the familiarity of long usage. Will the myth of roots do the same? Maybe not. Maybe the reality is too strong. And in fairness, we have to acknowledge that for rootless, mobile people like us, one motivation is the fear of being tied down, the fear of permanence. For some people change is a way of reviving their vitality; for others, it’s a threat to the life they’ve spent so much time and effort building. But Steinbeck wondered whether the deeper, more ancient need is “the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” Fifty years on, it’s still hard to know whether he was right.

From Belgrade to Amsterdam via Yellowstone

Many of the places we pass on the road are reminiscent of somewhere else. Glasgow, Oregon; Amsterdam, Montana; Aberdeen, Wyoming; Greenland, Colorado. The adventurers and nonconformists who settled these towns in search of something new still seemed unable to cut the roots completely.

There is still something about identity that is tied to where we come from, even if it’s nothing more than a name.

On the road we saw license plates from nearly every state: Alabama, Indiana, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Maine, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Alaska, and even other Washington plates in New Mexico. The number of out-of-state license plates is impressive when you consider that seeing a Maine license plate in Arizona is equivalent to seeing Turkish plates in England. These, too, are a sign of place, a way of establishing connections between people who are otherwise just strangers in a parking lot. “Oh, you’re from Washington! Whereabouts? I got a cousin that lives in Walla Walla. Nice place.”

Even here, though, there is a need to assert some prior socialization, the independence of an identity that is rooted elsewhere. Many of the people we met accomplished this through the medium of license plate frames and bumper stickers. These are identity markers; you may have a Colorado license plate, but your license plate frame identifies you as a fan of a particular football team, which indicates where you’re originally from, or the place you identify with most strongly, or the place you consider home. So if you meet a guy with Colorado plates and a New England Patriots license plate frame, you can safely utter the phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

In all our travels, we saw very few hitchhikers; only four in 5,000 miles. As children on long family road trips, we were constantly on the lookout for those interesting individuals by the sides of the highway, many covered in dust from the road and in varying degrees of disarray, all with their thumbs stuck up hopefully into that big sky. Our parents, of course, always warned us that it was not a good idea to pick up hitchhikers and we should never do it, even if they occasionally did it, because those times were exceptions and you could tell those people were trustworthy but still it wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t ever do it ourselves.

Now the government has taken over the parental role. There were “No Hitchhiking” signs everywhere, symbolized by a picture of an upraised thumb surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. Hitchhiking is now illegal in many states, and pedestrians are no longer allowed on the Interstates at all. This is all part of a greater effort to link safety and sterility. No littering, no hitchhiking; the two are often equated. The idea that this sort of mobility is a blight on the landscape and a threat to the safety of the average motorist is a different aspect of the roots myth. It’s a whole traveler culture gone.

On a clear night as we sailed across the flat desert there was a line of cars coming from the opposite direction, stretching miles into the distance. Headlights in a steady stream curved towards us from the right, and as we crossed the Arizona state line, the lights of a prison lit a hole in the black night sky for miles around. The headlights twinkled and pulsed as they advanced, like stars; the prison lights were steady and penetrating, immobile and permanent. A sheriff flew past us in the inside lane, lights flashing, throwing all the cars around us into momentary panic as they wondered who he was going to pull over for speeding, but he kept right on going. As we passed the exit for the prison we saw him parked on the overpass, facing the compound, highbeams on. Something was up. Again, signs by the side of the highway advised, “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” This time we nodded in silent agreement.

Sanitizing the highways is partly about cleaning things up, and partly about making life safer, more predictable. The impulse is discouraging for rootless travelers, but perhaps understandable.