The old America is all around us. Americans used to be farmers. They used to go to drive-in movies. They used to think Route 66 was the greatest highway in the world. Some still do.
If you drive out of the city and leave the strip malls and cookie-cutter suburban homes behind, you’ll find it soon enough. Head down a county road and you’ll pass dilapidated farmhouses and overgrown gardens, the handiwork of people from our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation. Like this old farm in Clay County, Missouri, near the Jesse James farm. I was with a couple of friends on a Jesse James road trip and we drove many of the back roads of western Missouri, places where Jesse committed his crimes and hid out from the law.
Everywhere we went we found this old Americana. On the outskirts of Kansas City we found a drive-in movie theater unchanged since the 1960s, and still open for half the year. To the west of Lexington we followed a potholed country road that led to a tributary of the Missouri River. Half a century ago there was a ferry at the end, popular enough that this road was lined with gas stations, hotels, and nice homes. The ferry disappeared when I-70 was built, and one by one the homes and businesses were abandoned.
Then there’s route 66, half ghost highway and half tourist trap. And old boom-and-bust mining towns like Bodie, California, now a State Historic Park. Not to mention all the failed businesses, the empty big box stores and bankrupt shopping malls that are creating the new ghost towns of the U.S. Much of industrial Detroit looks like an archaeological site.
Next time you go on a road trip in the U.S., get off the Interstate and take a county road. drive slow and look around. You’ll find the old America that hasn’t quite left us.