Road Tripping USA: “It’s Kinda a Dump, But I Like It”

1. OC Trailer Park

Oklahoma City to Little Rock is a measly four hours and for once, we can relax and take in the scenery without rushing to the next scheduled stop. The wet green and brown make Oklahoma feel like a different planet from the dry red and tans of New Mexico. Somewhere in Texas we must have gained that thing they call atmosphere.

The view is beautiful, but I realize that it’s all forests and farmlands on either side of the highway, without a hint of a small town. The closest we get are the highway outposts of gas, food, and lodging. Stopping for gas, I walk down the street to look for any sign of local culture. The closest I get is an empty souvenir shop selling giant rooster statues out front. I know the small towns that are so romanticized in this country’s lore do exist. I grew up in one. The rub is how do you break free of the intercontinental highway system to take the scenic route?

2. Roosters

First off, yes, I could have planned out a whole road trip that stuck clear of major highways. Absolutely. And I probably would have gotten exactly what I wanted in spades: main streets, diners and neon motels for miles. But where’s the fun in that? The whole healing power of the road trip lies in its spontaneous nature. Perhaps the problem lies in my cowardice in not taking a back road and seeing where it leads. Then again, this seems like more of blatant stupidity than an adventurous nature. Isn’t there some middle ground that isn’t a surefire way to get lost?

There seems to be a cultural and geographical quarantine set in place for the American Traveler. We hop on the highways and pinball our way from one city to the next, only stopping for the bare essentials. These outposts usually represents the largest of fast-food, gas and hotel chains and keep us at a safe distance from the real, tactile societies tucked behind the woods and farmland. Experiences at these places are like their cheeseburgers. They fulfill your immediate, base need, lets you keep going, but it has no substance and ultimately wears you down rather than energies you in your travels. You end up viewing the middle of America as some wasteland to just get through to your final destination.

Perhaps it’s from this cultural gap between travelers and locals that so much fear and mistrust grows in this country. The outsider looks at the locals with a kind of post-Deliverance stress disorder. As we ate lunch at a chicken joint in Oklahoma, I noticed Madison, with her bright pink hair, was a little self-conscious around this local farmers and fisherman with their hovering eyes and tight lips. Only after starting a conversation with an old retired couple on their way back from Branson did these irrational fears of “good ole’ boys” dissipate. In fact, anywhere we went always found us in conversation with kind, outgoing and accepting people who always had a good story to tell.

Of course it’s a two-way street. Most small-town residents probably aren’t too happy to have a whole bunch of strangers racing at high speeds through their town, each one a possible Perry Smith arriving at their doorstep. Keep those variables separate and moving at 80mph.. So fear widens this gap. We drive on, past that which is unfamiliar, clinging to the safety of isolation as defined by a phone’s navigation. Why bother with the hassle of the unknown route? Progress is the path of least resistance.

3. Little Rock

Little Rock is bathed in late sunlight when we arrive at the capitol. Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine went against conventional wisdom and self-preservation for an equal education. To look at the beautiful building, it’s hard to believe so much hate erupted here. That being said, Little Rock seems to radiate with a beatific aura of pride and equality. Central’s student body is mostly African American, and boasts some of the best test scores in the state. This city went through one of the worst fights for racial equality and came out on the other end. You can feel it walking through city hall and along the river market.

4. Teens in LR

A well-dressed man carrying a bottle of blow-bubbles recommends an Italian restaurant, Vito’s, saying, “It’s kinda a dump, but I like it.” Ultimately, we end up at a riverside restaurant called Sticky’s (decidedly not a dump) where we eat and drink on the back patio. A traveling blues singer regales us with Johnny Cash covers and life feels good. A sense of agency penetrates my thoughts. This is what happens when you take action and move your being across the country to an unfamiliar land. No plane, train or bus shuttled me here. I got in a car and drove and now I’m sitting in Little Rock, Arkansas enjoying a beer and music. It feels good when you drive through the fear and hesitation.

6. Madison & Train

My old boss, Graham, has put his kids to bed by the time we arrive for the night. We stay up and watch college football with him and his wife. For the first time in two days we sleep indoors, waking up to a delicious breakfast as Graham’s son and daughter watch Disney Channel’s Jesse on Netflix. Graham leads, what I consider to be, a rather ideal life. While he’s a screenwriter, having written for Sundance’s Peabody Award winning Rectify and co-created Cinemax’s Quarry with his writing partner Michael (Full Disclosure: This was the show on which I worked for Graham, so this is something of a plug), he maintains a full-time residence here in Little Rock with his wife and two children. He also happens to be a key player in the burgeoning Arkansas film movement; working to get a higher number of smart, independent films produced in state.

After breakfast, Graham and I talk about writing and artistic ambitions, the young artist’s desire to be a pure original. As Graham puts it, you have to realize art is a chain letter. We aren’t purely individualistic. We are the products of our environment and our media history. This has always been a struggle in my writing, to find the balance between the art and commercial. For Graham, it came down to simply asking the question of what pieces of film, literature, and plays inspired him, regardless of critical merit or commercial viability. It seems like such a simple directive, to follow your passion and, in a larger sense, who you are. Finding your own path seems to be a never-ending struggle.

Just before we leave, Graham hands over a piece of yellow legal paper on which is written, in a neat and clear penmanship, a list of restaurants, oddities, and back roads to take us all the way to Nashville. A Southerner’s guide on how to get a little lost in this country. For the first time on this trip, we get off the major highway, driving through main streets and cotton fields.

7. Pie Shop

We stop at a BBQ place called Craig’s inside an old split-level house. The roof sags in, pushing the heat back down onto us. The woman in charge barks, “What you want?” You tell her and find a seat if you can. Customers walk back in the kitchen, breaking what I assumed was a sacred law of restaurants. Of course, none of this matters by the time we bite into our delicious brisket sandwiches with hot, sweet sauce dripping onto the Styrofoam plates. Not willing to let the good times end, I order up a home-made coconut-cream pie which they bring over from the house/pie shop across the street. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend you stop by. Just look for the words PIE SHOP spray-painted in black little white-brick house.

More articles by:

Edward Leer is a Los Angeles based filmmaker.

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas