The other day I saw a hipster-type guy driving a Mini Cooper with a big Route 66 bumper sticker on it. I wanted to stop him and ask, "Did they let you drive on Route 66 with that car and those glasses? I thought you had to ride a Harley or drive an RV or William Least Heat-Moon would call the state police."
Nicholas Howe precisely identifies the phony authenticity of those off-the-beaten-track travelogues that shame us into believing we're cultural traitors for stopping at a rest area Burger King. Howe says the genre as exemplified by Heat-Moon's Blue Highways (1982) is based on a misreading of late regionalist writers such as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Sherwood Anderson. Least-Moon saw in their novels the last vestiges of the real America, while those writers saw the same small towns as pockets of drabness.
I think about this sometimes when I’m drinking coffee in a fast-food place along an interstate. Usually, I’ve driven too far that day and need to slow down; the discipline of hot coffee is that it takes more time than a cold drink. I like chain places because they clean the toilets and keep the place anonymous. They remind me that the most enviable of travelers—adaptable and graceful medievals like Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo—stuck to the main roads, the caravan routes, the pilgrimage ways. On the beaten track, they found what they needed: the exchange of goods, the ebb and flow of human beings moving about for all imaginable reasons, confirmation that life lies in motion and transfer. They knew that routes, like places, have their stories.
The reality of rural America today is that a good portion of its residents work in fast food franchises, along with national retail chains. In most of America the blue of the highways is Wal-Mart blue mixed with the Golden Arches yellow.