Enduring Visions of Route 1: Cars, Malls, and Nice People

HERE are five impressions after traveling Route 1:1. The friendliest, warmest people east of the Mississippi live and work on the route. A trailer park in Virginia said it all on a sign: "Really nice people live here." 2. Shopping malls are the dominant architectural feature, but few if any are distinctive from the outside. Reflecting cultural shifts, there are new kinds of businesses inside the malls: pet supermarkets, "security" stores, health-food stores combined with exercise salons, unisex hair stylists, baseball card stores, video and specialized computer stores ("P.C. City"), a walk-in bankruptcy and divorce store, child-care centers, Indian-artifact shops, and all-vegetarian restaurants. Many mall parking lots have recycling bins. 3. There are hundreds of auto-related businesses all along the route. On one two-mile stretch in North Carolina there were 20 kinds of car dealers, 2 truck dealers, 9 gas stations, 3 used-car lots, 3 auto-parts stores, an auto auction, a muffler franchise, 2 boat dealers, a motorcycle dealer, and an oil-change franchise. 4. Frankly, Route 1 is fascinating if the traveler's motivation is to slowly explore a corridor of American culture that mixes past and present, the intensely urban and the effusively rural. The advice here is to avoid the franchise restaurants and motels: Stop at places on a whim or because you can't believe the lack of pretense you see. 5. On a sunny day in rural Georgia we stopped at an old gas station converted into the "Hubcap Capital of the South." Thousands of hubcaps were everywhere, but the place was closed. At a house nearby, a short, wiry man in his 70s shut off his lawn mower and sauntered over in a yellow T-shirt and jeans. He began talking nonstop in a thick, thick Southern drawl. He talked about hubcaps, hubcap thieves, cattle ranching, trucks, airplanes, and shotguns. To my Northern ears, I could barely understand a word he said, but the banjo of his charm and the irresistible innocence of his friendliness sounded like pure goodness. He talked and talked. I looked up at the sun. I looked up and down the highway. I looked at the trees. I looked at the hubcaps. I thought, here is the exact moment in this odyssey of the heart when everything should stop and stay exactly as it is.

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