Just got back from a four-hour roll down Interstate 94, the highway that passes through Minnesota like a BB through a steer’s digestive system, and I don’t recall any billboards. Great! You say. They’re visual pollution. Do we really need a big sign telling us there’s a McDonald’s up ahead? When isn’t there a McDonald’s up ahead?
True. They’re spaced out with precision: By the time you regret passing that one 30 miles back, there’s one 20 miles up the road. No one ever pulls his car to the shoulder and tumbles out weeping because they just … don’t … know … where to get a hot meat divot.
Hold on. I’m wrong. I remember one billboard for a cafe that’s been around for decades. Probably grandfathered in, a legal term for “it would upset the old guy if we took it down.” It stuck in my mind because the little highway sign that tells you what’s available at this exit was empty. You know the sign: FOOD GAS LODGING, which makes it sound like you have a bloated bolus of indigestion stuck in your pipes. Man, my food gas is lodging. Obviously this exit used to have something, because there was a sign. But FOOD: no name. GAS: nothing.
This meant something closed and the sign was edited. Move along, citizen. If you’re lucky, the next exit will have a gas station with hot-plate coffee and “food” in the form of a vending machine, which has a Zagnut bar from 1997. But that’s 30 miles away. In the meantime, have some unvarying scenery. Is that soybeans? It’s probably soybeans.
To be honest, I almost sort of kinda miss interstate billboards. I’d taken Hwy. 10 up to Fargo the day before, and it’s lined with massive ads for things like COW VETERINARIAN. Having never dealt with a carsick Bossie in the back seat, I’ve never had the need, but it tells you something about where you are, just like five consecutive signs for bail bondsmen and defense attorneys make some people hit the door-lock button.
Some other things we could do to make the interstate less of a dial tone, and more of a melody:
• Near those long, long black skid marks that indicate a trucker had that terrifying moment we call “waking up,” a sign that says HE’S OK or perhaps indicates the quantity of potato chips that were dumped on the road when the truck went over.
• Seasonal decorations on the enormous power line trestles. If you’ve been along 94’s upper stretch, you know they built towers that look like 300 replicas of Godzilla’s skeleton. There’s so much power in those things the people who live nearby have their light bulbs glow even when they switch is off, and when they pet the cat the static discharge blows off most of the fur. They’re incredible. But it would be beautiful if they had lights, and could be red and green for Christmas. I would also suggest gigantic, 40-foot pairs of sneakers hanging from the lines every 20 miles.
• Beacons that sent messages to your phone. Target, we’ve learned, is experimenting with electronic devices on the shelves that push coupons or information to your smartphone. Why not adapt the idea to highways? I always pass a sign that says Middle Spunk Creek and wonder if I’ve already missed Lower Spunk Creek and will soon encounter Upper Spunk Creek, or whether I’m just in the median area of Spunk Creek, or whether the creek is moderately enthusiastic in its flow and thus can be described as being moderately spunky. Or whether the area was settled by Jeddidiah Mittlesponk, who built a mill on the river but lost everything in the Flax Panic of 1883.
A beacon that made my phone deliver a little history lesson would be marvelous. I had to go online to learn that Spunk Creek is 36.8 miles long, drains into Lower Spunk Lake, and eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine that information related by a mellifluous public radio announcer. This historical information is made possible by a grant from the John D., and Katherine T. and George Z. and Fanny “Tootles” P. MacArthur fund; additional funding comes from the Corporation for Saying Things With a Comforting Baritone While Mostly Flattering Your Preconceptions, and a grant from the National Endowment for Talking. And by Drivers Like You.
Well, someone has to pay for it.
• Billboards for cheesy tourist traps. I swear when I was a kid they were everywhere: DEER TOWN. REPTILE GARDENS. OWL HAMLET. SCORPION ACRES. They’re gone, like the cheesy glories of the Dells, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a sign — faded, peeling, peeking out from behind vines and bushes. They were landmarks in themselves. Before St. Cloud got the bypass you had to plow through town, and on the way out was a hand-painted sign that featured a scrawny guy with a thin neck, dressed in academic garb complete with a mortar board. The sign said:
DEAN OF TIRES
This assumed that there was a College of Tires somewhere, and Don had risen to the rank of dean perhaps by his groundbreaking thesis on whitewall privilege or something. Years later I discovered the story: There was a long-standing St. Cloud tire vendor named Donald Dean — a St. Cloud booster, World War II vet, conservationist and much more. He retired in 1988. Don’t know when the sign went down, but to this day, I don’t drive past St. Cloud without thinking about Don, Dean of Tires.
Drive past is what I did when I came to St. Cloud, after all. I was making good time. No reason to stop. The back roads have all the stories. The interstate just moves you along.