The Way to San Jose
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for
the modernist print magazine
A 4-minute read
If you’re travelling from Europe, a US road trip usually starts on the East coast and heads West. As well as being a logical direction to take, this orientation nicely continues the tradition of those heading West to realise their dreams or to experience experiences, grab riches or just plain old escape —either from themselves, their marriage or the “feds” although being on the run from the feds is usually reserved for Americans in pulp fiction novels-only, having just ‘done away’ with someone in an act of self-administered justice, revenge and/or retribution.
These days, there is an environmentally-based preference to journey by train; indeed, it was as a result of the railroads a-comin’ that America rapidly expanded its horizons in the 19th century. But come the early 20th century, ‘progress’ switched to accommodate and favour all things four wheels instead and the mythology of the ‘Great American Road’ was born.
So, to be truly 20th c. authentic, a cross-country trip has to be done by car. And why not when cars like the 1963 Ford Thunderbird look like they’re all set for the modernist space age and could take you there at warp speed?
The trip should begin in Detroit –—the state responsible for the birth of the global car industry, with the chosen vehicle being one of them ‘new-fangled automobiles’, a 1908 Ford Model T.
This would quickly evolve into a 1949 Hudson so that one could assume a more Beatnik Jack Kerouac role before evolving again into a Ford F1 Series, the archetypal 1950s pick-up.
A return journey East to West would for sure be done in a painted school bus, in the style of The Merry Pranksters; the extra space is needed for all the new friends made in San Francisco and the excessive stock of hallucinogens. But as that particular journey is more hippie and less modernist, it’s discouraged for now.
An American soundtrack makes for a nice cinematic touch, and tunes should include key 20th-century musical moments from the Blues, Blue-Grass, Country, Jazz, Swing and Elvis. Yes, Elvis is somewhat unoriginal, but come on, what’s the point in driving into Las Vegas as anything other than a hot Hunk of Burning Love?
With the way to San Jose programmed into the Sat Nav and a deep V8 rumble accompanied by flying dust and dirt (even where there isn’t any), the journey begins, and ‘town’ will soon subserviently disappear in the rear-view mirror.
From here on, until the next town looms on the horizon - with its bright lights and broken promises - roadside paraphernalia will be our only companion.
There’ll be the exciting pop of old advertising: massive billboards featuring consumer goods, high alters to both commerce and products-as-democracy:
“A coke is a coke, and no amount of money can get you a better coke”
Andy Warhol once boasted of democratic life in the US.
In spots where nobody sees any good reason to climb up and get them down, vintage ghost signs can still be seen. Weather-beaten and bleached-out but still a reminder of the product inequality those on the opposite side of the Atlantic were experiencing in the 1950s thanks to post-war rationing (in the UK) and the Soviet Union ideology (in the Eastern Bloc).
There is the mandatory conversion of everything into a ‘drive-thru’ (sic). You’re ready for a drive-in Jesus (followed by coffee and bagels), especially after all those roadside messages from God confirming what a horrible sinner you are.
These spiritual pointers to happiness are quickly countered by encouraging signs to ‘Get rich quick!’ in places like Nevada and California. Promises still in place since the gold rush of 1849 and the 1950s casino-heydays of Las Vegas.
Road-side paraphernalia punctuates the most desolate of spots, breaking up the miles of monotonous road, the next turning still a whole day away. The desert landscape’s harsh, baron wilderness takes a stylized, starring role in the windscreen. Thoughts drift to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in Spaghetti Westerns in which the sun beats down relentlessly, the odd bit of tumbleweed tumbles, and nothing much happens apart from Clint’s eyebrows.
As the destination is reached, the view will slowly and increasingly bear roadside fruit once more. A sign swings in the breeze, and the sound of the doors on outposts, gas stations and motels surreally bang in a non-existent wind.
Buildings appear on the horizon as though a mirage or a manifestation on the Starship Enterprise’s Holodeck.
Time has lost meaning, the usual day-to-day punctuation is absent, and habits loosely associated with day and night are abstract: Breakfast is served all day; the beer is always cold; rooms are by the hour, and conflicting signs often sit right next to each other. ‘Molly’s Bar & Lounge’ — ‘Breakfast Anytime’.
Each sign is more than the sum of its informative parts, offering something your Sat Nav could never point you in the direction of: nostalgia. Each road-related building, gas station, car wash, diner, restaurant chain, truck stop or motel characterises the look and feel of the particular state they’re obediently introducing.
The sole signifier as to exactly which town you’re on the fringes of. They convey a certain atmosphere associated with a particular decade: an old roadside sign for a Tiki Bar evokes the 1960s, blue cocktails and Hawaiiana. A Dive Bar sign on the San Pedro highway, kidding us into believing it’s 1970 and Charles Bukowski is still sitting inside, knocking back the Whiskey and philosophy, bitching about the post office.
As the journey comes to an end, these road-side announcements to civilisation will conclude with the obligatory “Welcome” sign —usually complete with some civic pride stat underneath— signalling that you’ve arrived back in the land of ‘civilisation’.
If you’re lucky, that mandatory sign might read ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks. Population 51,201’, and if it does, buckle up; you’re in for a bumpy visit.
But at least the roadside coffee will be damn fine.
As featured in the modernist magazine
Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney
Follow Sarah Feeney's modernist adventures on INSTAGRAM: