Highway Anthropology

I have just returned from a 3,000 mile trip to catch fish.  I drove 1100 miles to a friend’s house, from where I rode another 650 miles to an outfitter and back, and then another 1400 miles as I visited more friends on the way home.  At such distances, a couple hundred miles no longer seems out of the way.

I believe I now qualify as an official denizen of the interstate highway sub-culture.   Speaking as a sociologist, my recent research via car demonstrates that America’s highways have their own customs, rules, and regular travelers.  A kind of kinship grows, if you spend enough time on the road, because you keep passing each other.  I went by one driver pulling a string of truck cabs so often I began to think I should wave.  It seemed like we spent the day together, except that he obviously never needed to pee.  RVs are common, often decorated with eagles or forest scenes to make us think the people inside with ridiculous amounts of disposable income are actually in covered wagons.  There is also lots of local traffic, especially around cities, as people travel the same three or four exits to work.  They tend to be the least patient, like rude tourists, ignoring the normal proprieties of interstate travel.  Over longer distances, a functional rhythm sets in with vehicles that completely disappears when the commuter hordes invade.  The equivalent of a boring Sunday drive is suddenly transformed into the Indianapolis 500, only with drivers who are applying makeup, texting, talking on cell phones, and have children flailing in the back seat.

Among highway regulars, there is definitely a class structure.  After two weeks of extensive sampling, I’d suggest the following categories:  the professionals, the incompetents, the assholes, and the annoying.  I like to fancy myself a professional, submitting as qualifications that I survived a three thousand mile road trip.  However, I think I was passed by a pair of real professionals on the New York State Thruway, in cars that made them look like state troopers.  A Black and a White guy raced through the intermittent traffic, re-enacting Fast and Furious Part 12.  But they were far less scary than the older woman who came to a stop in front of me while deciding if she might be passing her exit.

Mostly, I tried to stay by myself, finding empty stretches on the road to hang out.  I figured it gave other people less of a chance to kill me.  Flying is much safer than car travel.  About one hundred people die every day on America’s roads.  If that many people died daily in planes, we’d shut them all down.  But anybody can drive a car.  Violent, predatory felons can’t own a gun, but a car is no problem.

The asshole-class driver comes in two sub-categories: 1) irritating, 2) dangerous.  An example of the irritating assholes are people who speed up as you try to pass them.  I don’t know whether they hate being passed, like it makes them losers, or if they simply aren’t paying attention.  A related example are drivers who pass you and then pull directly in front, sort of tail-gating in reverse, making you slam on your brakes, and turning off your cruise control.  I don’t like tail-gating, whether in front or back.

The dangerous form of the asshole class is best exemplified by the dominatrix/bully tailgater.  They often seem to drive large pickups or SUVs with menacing grills, sort of like a lion bearing down on victims at high speeds.  Soon, all you can see is the car logo on their grill.  My personal research suggests there is an over-abundance of assholes on the New York State Thruway, sort of like an infestation, or maybe demonic possession.  One minute, all seems well; the next; there’s a headlight filling your rearview mirror, and a scowling face behind it.  After you get out of the way, they race to the next conquest, until disappearing into the sunset.  They could be demons, for all I know, who get on around Exit 36 and get off around Exit 56, a zone of car-driving asshole possession.

Like drivers, roads also come with various levels of class and congestion.  I drove a hundred miles on a beautiful, backcountry road, left empty because of the nearby interstate.  It was literally a drive in the country, a road trip fantasy come true.  By contrast, a ten-mile length of Route 81 outside of Harrisburg is channeled between cement dividers placed on the white lines.  The effect is like squeezing past each other in a concrete hallway, only in large, high-priced, metallic boxes moving at high speeds.

The last hundred miles to the outfitter was a dirt road that took us four hours to traverse.  It’s the only place we got a flat tire, and then trouble with the spare, leading to several hours available as food for black flies and mosquitoes.  The roughness, however, is part of the road’s charm.  Our flat tire stories are as much fun as the fish ones.  (Did I ever tell you about the time we got four flats on one truck?)  Plus, you get to see cool stuff like adolescent moose twins galumphing through a peat swamp.

All things considered, the dirt road was first class.  I hope to go back, and recommend such dirt roads to anyone.  On the other hand, I don’t know if the Catholic church performs exorcisms on highways, but I’d recommend you avoid the Thruway.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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