Bryson's America: Magic milestones on a bleak highway

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The Independent Culture
If you have been following this space closely (and if not, why not?) you will recall that last week I discussed how we recently drove from New Hampshire to Ohio in order to deliver my eldest son to a university that had offered to house and educate him for the next four years in return for a sum of money not unadjacent to the cost of a moon launch.

What I didn't tell you then, because I didn't want to upset you on my first week back from holiday, is what a nightmarish experience it was. Now, please understand, I am as fond of my wife and children as the next man - no matter how much they cost me per annum in footwear and Nintendo games (which is, frankly, a lot). But that isn't to say that I wish to pass a week with them ever again in a sealed metal chamber on an American highway.

The trouble is not my family, I hasten to add, but the American highway. Oh, is the American highway dull. As a Briton, you really cannot imagine boredom on this scale (unless, perhaps, you are from Stevenage). Part of the problem with American highways is that they are so very long. It is 850 miles from New Hampshire to central Ohio, and just as far back. And there is nothing to get excited about along the way.

It didn't used to be like this. When I was a boy, the highways of the United States were scattered with diversions. They weren't very good diversions, but that didn't matter at all. At some point every day, you could count on seeing a hoarding that would say something like: "Visit World-Famous Atomic Rock - It Really Glows!" A few miles farther on, there would be another, saying: "See the Rock That Has Baffled Science! Only 162 Miles!" This one would have a picture of a grave-looking scientist with a cartoon bubble beside his mouth confiding: "It Is Truly a Marvel of Nature!" or "I Am Quite Baffled!"

A few miles beyond that would be: "Experience the Atomic Rock Force Field... If You Dare! Just 147 Miles!" This one would show a man, interestingly not unlike one's own father, being violently flung back by some strange radiant force. In smaller letters would be the warning: "Caution: May Not Be Suitable for Small Children."

Well, that would be it. My big brother and sister, squeezed on to the back seat with me and having exhausted all the possibilities for diversion that came with holding me down and drawing vivid geometric patterns on my face, arms and stomach with a Biro, would set up a clamour to see this "world-famous" attraction, and I would weakly echo them.

The people who put up these hoardings were brilliant - among the greatest marketing geniuses of our age. They knew precisely - to the mile, I would guess - how long it would take a carful of children to wear down their father's profound and inevitable opposition to visiting something that was going to waste time and cost money. The upshot, in any case, is that we always went.

The World-Famous Atomic Rock would, of course, be nothing like the advertised attraction. It would be almost comically smaller than illustrated, and wouldn't glow at all. It would be fenced off, ostensibly for the safety of onlookers, and the fence would be covered with warnings saying: "Caution: Dangerous Force Field! Approach No Further!" But there would always be some kid who would crawl under the fence and go up and touch it, indeed clamber all over it, without being flung aside or suffering any other evident consequences. As a rule, my extravagant Biro tattoos would draw more interest from the crowd.

So, in disgust, my father would pile us all back into the car, vowing never to be duped like that again, and we would drive on until, some hours later, we would pass a hoarding that said: "Visit World-Famous Singing Sands! Only 214 Miles!" And the cycle would start again.

Out west, in really boring states such as Nebraska and Kansas, people could put up signs saying pretty much anything: "See the Dead Cow! Hours of Fun for the Whole Family!" or "Plank of Wood! Just 132 Miles!" Over the years, I well recall, we visited a dinosaur footprint, a painted desert, a petrified frog, a hole in the ground that claimed to be the world's deepest well, and a house made entirely of beer bottles. In fact, from some of our holidays that is all I can remember.

These things were always disappointing, but that wasn't the point. You weren't paying 75 cents for the experience. You were paying 75 cents as a kind of tribute - a thanks to the imaginative person who had helped you to pass 127 miles of uneventful highway in a state of excitement, and, in my case, without being scribbled on. My father never understood this.

Now, I regret to say, my children don't understand it either. On this trip, as we drove across the vast expanse of Pennsylvania, we passed a sign that said: "Visit World-Famous Roadside America! Just 79 Miles!"

I had no idea what Roadside America was, and it wasn't even on our route, but I insisted that we go there anyway. These things simply don't exist any longer. Nowadays, the most exciting thing you can hope to get along the American highway is a McDonald's Happy Meal. So something like Roadside America, whatever it might be, is to be devoutly cherished. The great irony is that I was the only one in the car who wanted to see it.

Roadside America turned out to be a large model railway, with little towns and tunnels, farms with miniature cows and sheep, and trains going round in circles. It was a little dusty and ill-lit, but charming, in a not-touched-since-1957 sort of way. We were the only customers that day - possibly the only customers for many days. I loved it.

"Isn't this great?" I said to my youngest daughter.

"Dad, you are like... so pathetic," she said sadly, and went out.

I turned hopefully to her little brother, but he just shook his head and followed.

I was disappointed, naturally, but I think I know what to do next time. I'll hold them down for two hours beforehand and draw all over them with a Biro. Then they'll appreciate any kind of highway diversion. Of that I am certain.

`Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)