The SFA Take: In Praise of Interstates

Atlanta Sign

I love interstates!”

My passenger said nothing in response to my unsolicited and un-ironic outburst, but his furrowed brow and wide eyes plainly called my sanity into question.

In his defense, we were merging onto I-85 south at Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, Georgia, and the traffic ripping down eight lanes in each direction raised every hair on his small town South Carolina neck. I had learned to drive in the convoluted mess called Atlanta, though. What he saw as pandemonium, I barely even noticed. For a lighthearted debate (some say I just like to be right), I began to build a case for my asphalt affection.

Interstates get a bad rap, and not without reason. The movie Cars neatly depicts the problem: cozy little towns bypassed by modern Americans in too much of a hurry to appreciate the slower, simpler things in life. An interstate is a tangible iteration of the conflict between modernity and tradition, city and country, fast and slow. It’s the Walmart of roadways, sacrificing character for convenience. Even the Indigo Girls, of whom I’m a shameless fan, wrestle with this conundrum in a song that otherwise celebrates the virtue of the road trip: “Why do we hurtle ourselves through every inch of time and space?”

By the same token, the open road occupies a treasured space in the American imagination. Emily Saliers hails the road’s power to clear your head, Jay Farrar its blessed ability to take your troubles away. Hundreds of other artists sing its praises. Clearly, I’m not alone in my love of a long drive.

Still, there’s something about an interstate in particular—not a winding country road—that sums up my Southern experience in such a visceral way that it’s taken quite a bit of pondering (approximately 7,000 miles and dozens of drive-thru meals) to put my finger on exactly why.

Thinking sticks.

I’ve learned that moments that make me cringe also have a keen way of exposing my own values and prejudices. For my six-year-old’s birthday, a friend (who happens to be a chef) offered to take us to dinner anywhere in Oxford she would like to go. She squealed “Taco Bell!” without a moment’s hesitation.

“Well, sweetie, we were thinking somewhere a little nicer. A real restaurant.”

“McDonald’s?”

“Not fast food, honey. Somewhere where they have servers that bring your meal to the table.”

“They bring your meal to the table at Chick-Fil-A…”

The girl wanted fast food. I wanted to explain to my friend that we shop at the farmers market, that we drink non-homogenized milk from a local family dairy, that my son begs for Brussels sprouts and artichokes in the produce aisle at Kroger. I felt compelled to prove that her request in no way reflected how we eat at home. I bit my tongue, and we eventually settled on a pizza place on the Oxford Square, but I was unsettled by my own embarrassed elitism. Ever the over-thinker, I tried to reconcile her childlike enthusiasm with our mutual culinary experience.

A special occasion warrants a special meal, and since fast food is generally off limits, to her it’s, well, special. It’s birthday party food, breakfast with grandpa food, vacation with cousins food. Many of her happiest days have been punctuated with French fries and playplaces. And if I’m completely honest, so have many of mine.

I think of my dad, who loves pickles but not on his Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Rather than order his burger special, he would peel off the limp, vinegary discs and give them to me. Just to me—never to my brothers. I don’t know why he singled me out for this tiny privilege, but I’ve long considered it a precious part of my childhood. It always happened on the road.

I think of hitting up the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru with my high school buddies in my little silver hatchback with no AC. Nothing tasted more like teenage freedom than those early morning chicken biscuits and round, oily hash browns as we cruised up I-985 for a day at Lake Lanier.

I think of all the meals at Cracker Barrel with my children as we’ve traveled to visit distant loved ones. This interstate staple is where my son learned to love collard greens and I first tasted fried okra. It’s where my daughter learned to play checkers. And it’s where we can always arrange a quick meal with some extended family member before we push onward to another destination.

As much as I bemoan the sheer quantity of just-off-the-interstate food any road trip with children involves, I’ve learned to recognize its singular value in that context. Even if it means my daughter considers a trip to Taco Bell a special occasion.

When people talk about the Southern way of life, they talk about family, food, music, and landscape—and they very often evoke some predictable pace that comforts and gives a sense of belonging. For me, the interstate embodies all of that.

Those worn white lines keep me and my children connected to the rest of our family via truck stops and fast food joints. On those drives, my kids learned to love Sam Cooke and Tom Petty. I wake them when I-20 east twists around to reveal a resplendent Atlanta skyline, and I always point out Gaffney, South Carolina’s peach-shaped water tower so we can giggle together about what it really resembles.

In a way, I-85, I-77, I-20, I-55—these roads have been home to me more than any one place I’ve actually put down roots. Like any home, they’re complicated, their history twisted up in socio-economic processes, technological advances, and race-infused politics.

But they’ve also taught me just how big home can be, and how broad and diverse the South can be. It turns out that for my family, that predictable Southern pace clocks in at around 80 mph, with a side of fries and a large sweet tea.

Jenna Mason is SFA’s office manager and web editor.