Road Warriors

“Permanence is neither achieved nor desired by mobile people. They do not buy for the generations, but only until a new model they can afford comes out.”

As we pulled back onto the highway from our latest rest stop, we passed a long line of semi-trucks parked at the far end of the lot, their drivers nowhere to be seen, most likely holed up in their cabs for a much-needed rest. These titans of transport rumble up and down the Interstates, enthroned like kings in their cabs, their kingdoms moving with them from one roadside diner to the next. “The truckers cruise over the surface of the nation without being a part of it.” (72) Steinbeck had an appreciation for truckers as professionals, keepers of a specialized knowledge and bearers of a secret language. He was lucky enough to be accepted among them, as a fellow wanderer with his own wisdom, his own secrets. In our sports car, which marked us out as amateurs, we were never so lucky. We had to make do with the occasional longing look or appreciative nod.

Rest areas in some states have started offering free coffee, presumably to help keep these legions of truckers awake and alert. Since we were trying to awaken our inner Americans, we decided to stop and try this free coffee, because Americans don’t turn down free anything. After tasting it, we decided that in the future we would pay for our coffee. It just proves the old adage that you don’t get something for nothing. But after spending so many thousands of miles sharing the roads with those giants of transport and more than once wondering what our little Mazda would look like after an altercation with one of them, we submit that we as a nation owe our truckers better coffee.

In addition to these ubiquitous semis, giant RVs seem to be proliferating across the country. They are starting to rival the trucks for numbers and size, though certainly not road dominance. These are 40-foot behemoths towing luxury four-wheel drive vehicles. You’d never know gas was hovering around $4 per gallon. New and shiny, these giants of the road are driven by white-haired retirees in convoys collectively worth millions of dollars.

These glistening wheeled residences parade through the tiny towns where their dusty, road-weary cousins are parked permanently next to rusting water tanks, surrounded by waist-high grass, with boards propped against the peeling sides to cover the wheels and give the whole thing the illusion of permanence. But there is nothing more precarious. For some people mobility is freedom. For others it’s a threat.

Yet the attraction of mobility seems undimmed since Steinbeck’s day. There are thousands of residents of RV Parks along incredibly straight stretches of highway. Collectively, they sponsor a section of the road, paying for its maintenance and cleaning up the trash people jettison from the windows of moving cars, just like the boys in Colorado. This lends a sense of ownership, of control over a symbolic stretch of freedom. Where else but America would so many people live in their RVs and spend time and money beautifying a stretch of highway? You can even adopt a highway through the American Highway Maintenance Corporation, which provides recognition for your efforts by means of huge signs along the side of “your” stretch of highway, advertising your commitment to beautifying your environment. Some of these signs display names of individuals and families, others advertise “Capital Bail Bonds,” or “Conservative Evangelical Christians.” For the young boys we met, it was a sense of social responsibility that compelled them to clean up after their less responsible compatriots. For the older generations it seems to be an unquenchable desire for a sense of place. They’ve rejected the obligations associated with a traditional home and replaced them with others.

At another of the infamous rest areas, we met a former pastor who had supplemented an allegiance to Jesus with an allegiance to the road. He and his wife have been living in their fifth wheel trailer for about a year now. They travel around between RV parks and people’s driveways. They subscribe to newsletters and magazines all about the RV culture (though we were unsure how all that mail gets delivered). The Reverend said that an estimated one million people in the US live exclusively in an RV. It’s a completely nomadic, mobile culture. The most recent US census calls these “people on the move” and counts them as an entirely separate subset of the American population, like students or military personnel. This is the road warrior culture, where a vehicle is a status symbol, an indicator of independence and imagined individuality. It will take more than high gas prices to change that.

We also found RVs inhabiting the various campgrounds where we spent our nights. These existed in various states of permanence, from those just parked overnight to those leveled with wheel blocks for a longer stay, and even some who planned to stay for entire seasons, with potted plants growing outside and above-ground pools set up in the next campsite. Either way, nearly every RV we saw had a satellite dish, some affixed to the top and some set up on tripods outside, so the occupants never had to be out-of-touch with the all-important TV culture. As Steinbeck drove through the country he noted, “It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used.” (82) The loss of the regional particularities which he observed continues apace in America’s campgrounds, all thanks to the ubiquity of TV.

Rubbish and Rest Areas

“Every few miles the states provided places of rest off the roads, places sometimes near dark streams. There were painted oil drums for garbage and picnic tables, and sometimes fireplaces or barbecue pits.”

We’ve never been to prison, but rest area restrooms are what we imagine prison toilets to be like. With the exception of the baby change station, at least. Everything is stainless steel: the toilets, sinks, mirrors, everything. The toilet paper holders are pad-locked, presumably to prevent the theft of a valuable resource. When you close the stall door, it makes the sound of a cell door slamming. A final, echoing, bone-chilling, despair-inducing Ka-Wham.

Steinbeck knew these places in their former guise, when they were apparently idyllic little oases scattered across a desert of black asphalt. It is true that America has an endless string of rest areas stretching from Seattle to Miami, Maine to California, but in our experience they are universally horrible. Derelict picnic tables on a patch of scrub grass eight feet square, provided for your convenience so you can sit and have your lunch while traffic whizzes by on the Interstate six feet away. The barbeque pits have been replaced with vending machines.

But a rest area is a lifesaver when you’re out on the highway 40 miles from the nearest town and you’ve just finished an American-sized 64-oz Coke. You live for the signs. You count the miles. Rest area ten miles. Five miles. Two miles. There it is! The big blue signs are like water in the desert. Until you see the traffic cones. Closed for repairs. This in a country where public urination is a crime, and the next nearest toilet is 35 miles in the direction you’ve just come from. Then what you wouldn’t give for a squalid toilet stall with two inches of standing water on the floor.

At one of these rest areas, under a bright noonday sun, we met a crew of teenage boys lounging on the peeling picnic tables, wearing their own version of a uniform: oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans, and baseball caps. Perhaps understandably, we assumed they were out for a joyride on a Saturday afternoon. Then again, you know what they say about assumptions and asses. Their van, parked nearby with all the doors open, was emblazoned with a logo: Environmental Youth League. Turns out they were spending their Saturday afternoon picking up trash by the side of the highway. They had stopped at the rest area to take advantage of both the facilities and the chance to sit and relax. They all turned their heads to follow the progress of the car as we pulled in. Inevitably, this is where we started.

“Nice car!”

We tried to grin modestly. Matt wandered over within conversational distance. “Yeah, I wish it was mine! Belongs to my father-in-law.”

“Wish we had something like it. We’re stuck driving around in this stinking box all weekend.”

Matt turned to look over his shoulder at the dust-caked van. It was hard to tell what color it was supposed to be, but the logo on the side was clear.

“So what’s the Environmental Youth League? Some sort of work-release program?”

Beautify this

The oldest of the boys laughed and shook his head once, from right to left. “Actually it’s a volunteer organization. We’re out here by choice. Just picking up the garbage people chuck out of their car windows, trying to keep the place looking nice.”

The “place” was a stretch of highway ten miles long, surrounded by flat, high prairie, with scrub grass stretching away to Kansas in the east and the Rockies in the west. The spring fields were high with wheat and alfalfa, the road tracing a black scar through green and golden grassland. These boys were like contemporary cowboys, riding the range in their loyal steed, righting wrongs as they went.

The trash by the side of the highway is nothing new. Steinbeck saw it long before we did. “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.” (22) For a while those rings seemed to expand with the growth of the cities, and gradually began to tail out along the highways, so that even the open stretches between cities were strewn with the detritus of American civilization. But these young men were personified evidence of a new social awareness. Having grown up with the garbage, they nevertheless saw it as Steinbeck did, as a blight on the open land.

Steinbeck wondered whether there would come a time when we could no longer afford our wastefulness and would be forced to adapt our lifestyles and methods of production to a necessary austerity. These boys weren’t yet able to influence the causes, but they were sacrificing their spare time to mediate the effects. They were even sorting the trash they collected for recycling.

We left them to their work with a sense of chastisement as well as renewed hope for the future of our open spaces. The appreciation for the natural world which Steinbeck wrote of fifty years ago is still out there among the young, even if its opposite is clearly written along the sides of the highway in discarded Coke cans.