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The Great American Roadside

Introducing an American Institution which is also a $3,000,000,000 industry, and which is founded upon a solid rock: the restlessness of the American people.

The characters in our story are five: this American continent; this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and--the Great American Roadside. To understand the American roadside you must see it as a vital and inseparable part of the whole organism, the ultimate expression of the conspiracy that produced it.

As an American, of course, you know these characters. This continent, an open palm spread frank before the sky against the hulk of the world. This curious people. The automobile you know as well as you know the slouch of the accustomed body at the wheel and the small stench of gas and hot metal. You know the sweat and the steady throes of the motor and the copious and thoughtless silence and the almost lack of hunger and the spreaded swell and swim of the hard highway toward and beneath and behind and gone and the parted roadside swarming past. This great road, too: you know that well. How it is straggled and twisted along the coast of Maine, high-crowned and weak-shouldered in honor of long winter. How in Florida the detours are bright with the sealime of rolled shells. How the stiff wide stream of hard unbroken roadstead spends the mileage between Mexicali and Vancouver. flow the road degrades into a rigorous lattice of country dirt athwart Kansas through the smell of hot wheat (and this summer a blindness and a strangulation of lifted dust). How like a blacksnake in the sun it takes the ridges, the green and dim ravines which are the Cumberlands, and lolls loose into the hot Alabama valleys. How in the spectral heat of the Southwest, and the wide sweeps of sage toward the Northwest, it means spare fuel strapped to the running hoard . . . Oh yes, van know this road; and you know this roadside. You know this roadside as well as you know the formulas of talk at the gas station, ar B-Q sandwich in mid-afternoon, the oddly excellent feel of a weak-springed bed in a clapboard transient shack, and the early start in the cold bright lonesome air, the dustless and dewy road and the stammering birds, and the day's first hitchhiker brushing the damp hay out of his shirt.

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All such things you know. But it may never have sharply occurred to you, for instance, tha the welcome taste of a Bt the 900,000 miles of hard-fleshed highway that this people has built--not just for transportation but to express something not well defined--is by very considerable odds the greatest road the human race has ever built. It may never have occurred to you that upon this continent and along this road this people casually moves in numbers and by distances which make the ancient and the grave migrations of the Celt and the Goth look like a smooth crossing on the Hoboken Ferry. And it may never have occurred to you that the Great American Roadside, where this people pauses to trade, is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race. For only just now are people beginning to realize that these five characters, as they function in relation to one another, combine in simple fact to mean a new way of life, a new but powerfully established American institution. And that the roadside, the most vivid part of this institution, is a young but great industry which will gross, in this, the fifth year of the great world depression, something like $3,000,000,000.

And even if you're aware of these things as they are, it isn't likely that you know just why they grew so fast, just why they are as they are. Because few Americans are really wise to themselves.

When we say point-blank that this institution, this industry, is founded upon just one thing, the restlessness of the American people, it still won't be clear. Because too many sentimental tourists have written of the joys of going "a-gipsying," have talked too much and too loosely of the American pioneer spirit.

The truth is, it isn't at all easy to say right.