The American roadside attraction

by Gautam Raja

“You kill it, we grill it.”

The closest Roadkill Cafe comes to living up to name and tagline is the bison burger, a road kill that would likely leave you in no shape to eat anything. But this is Seligman, Arizona, along a section of Route 66 that cleaves more accurately to a Disney Cars notion of the defunct highway than the dustier, more dangerous version Steinbeck etched in Grapes of Wrath.

Not everyone gets it. A few years ago, we recommended the Grand Canyon Caverns to houseguests who came back puffy and hissy about how downmarket the experience was, how underwhelming the caverns, especially compared to ones they’d seen on their other travels around the world. They had completely missed the point.

When you park in the shadow of a giant plaster dinosaur and pay $12 to be led through the caverns by an eccentric bearded man who knows and has a name for every calcite formation (“Here are the Fried Eggs!”), through caves that contain a mummified bobcat, a model of a prehistoric giant sloth whose bones were found in the cavern, and tinned biscuits from when it was to be a Cold War fallout shelter, you have signed on the dotted line of a very American contract. All along this thoroughfare are eccentric, overblown roadside attractions whose inauthenticity is their authenticity—you hand over your money fully aware you’re being taken for a bit of a ride, and you’re okay with that. This is how you get your kicks on Route 66.

If you haven’t been to the US, and are not sure which of your grand and terrible images of this country would survive a visit, it would likely be your fevered dream of the road trip. Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable. Recently, I drove with my parents from home near Los Angeles, to Denver, Colorado. Taking our time over three days, we passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, and the incredible Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. On the way back it was just me from Vail, Colorado, taking the faster route along the I-70 and I-15 freeways.

The first third or so of the sixteen-and-a-half-hour journey back (counting breaks) was enlivened by the scenery through the Rockies and the San Rafael Swell. As the land settled into less fantastical shapes, colours and textures, I switched the in-car entertainment from music to an audio book, The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. In his essay “How Dare You” about his novel American Gods, Gaiman seemed to address me directly when he said, “I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America.”

I was intrigued. I haven’t read American Gods, but I know that turning off a highway, and following a sign promising a “historical museum” or the like, is like turning from your idea of America to America’s idea of America. Without these signposts, the Hollywood sign is a set of large wooden letters on a hill, a burger is a round sandwich, and Route 66 is a scattering of lost roads. Contained in the American roadside attraction is the acknowledgment that somebody built this, and to it we came. Walking through a Seligman store, looking at the Route 66 T-shirts, mugs, licence plates, earrings, pins, caps, I see this dross, this kitsch as sacrament, as relics. I see the American’s longing to be told that somewhere in this vast, confusing, troubled, achingly beautiful country, is America, and that this may be it, no more, no less.

First published in Gulf News, August 30, 2016