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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

America the weird

Posted By on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Our son Graham and his longtime lover, Amy, were married in Chapel Hill, North Carolina over the Memorial Day weekend. It turned out to be a wondrous occasion, taking place in the open air, before a stately grove of evergreens. That night there was a bonfire and fireflies speckled the dewy air with countless exclamation points.

It is customary following such events for the bride and groom to get away for what is called a honeymoon. But my wife and I - or, in wedding parlance, the MOG and FOG (for Mother and Father of the Groom) decided to follow suit. It's not every day you gain a daughter-in-law (a DIL?).

So we went on a road trip.

From Chapel Hill we drove to the 18th century town of Savannah, Georgia. A day later we were walking among sea turtle nests in Palm Beach Shores, Florida. From there it was up to Louisville, Kentucky, where we were knocked out by a heady mix of contemporary art, southern hospitality and what will probably be the best chicken I'll ever eat.

It is easy to think of the American road trip as a kind of antique. What began as a pioneering blend of adventure and ordeal in the 1800s became a means of self discovery, national and personal, through the first half of the 20th century. Then Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system, which made the experience faster, more efficient and generally forgettable.

Interstate travel is based on the premise that the journey is a hassle. Forget process, the sooner you get to your destination the better. With their node-like clusters of franchise eateries and brand name beds, Interstates rub the rough edges off the sense of place.

It turns out, of course, that we pretty much like it this way. The fact is that those brand names provide predictability. Think a Hampton Inn is boring? Try sleeping at the Bates Motel.

But as homogenous as the Interstate experience can seem, there are still ways in which regional differences make themselves felt. It starts with billboards. South of the Mason-Dixon line certain themes - defending the unborn, lip smackin' barbeque, and opportunities to buy guns enough to turn even your Volkswagen Golf into a War Wagon - are bound to impress. And as tempting as it is to rely on your smart phone or Garmin for navigation, keep an old-fashioned road atlas near at hand. How else are you going to know about that cemetery for Confederate dead that's perched to the right of Exit 57?

It also helps if something not too major goes wrong. Upon arrival in Savannah, we discovered one of our tires was shot. We were lucky it wasn't a blow-out. But what was luckier still was that, as one thing led to another, we had to turn, as the great Tennessee Williams would have said, to the kindness of strangers. In the course of a single morning we formed attachments, connections we could never have imagined.

Then away we went.

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