20 January 2011

Travel and Our Lady of the Strip Mall

I love to travel. What I don't necessarily love is getting from point A to point B. Now don't get me wrong; some of the best discoveries happen when you aren't looking for them, but that doesn't mean that, more often than not, you aren't still sitting in a car for endless hours wishing fervently that Scotty would just get on with it and beam you up already. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I doubt my life would have been significantly altered by viewing such epic tourist attractions as The World's Biggest Ball of Twine or the Second Oldest Continuously Burning Light Bulb on the interminable cross-country vacation drives my family made when I was a kid. I'm sure we saw many similarly "epic" tourist attractions, just as I am equally sure I immediately blocked them permanently from my memory. Those really aren't the sorts of discoveries I would like to find on my travels.

Like most people, I'd like to hit the classics at some point: The Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, etc. I've already made to Loch Ness, Westminster Abbey, Fisherman's Wharf, Pasadena (the setting for Big Bang Theory, woot!), the Schönbrunn Palace, Times Square, Edinburgh Castle, London's West End, Mirabell Gardens (where the "Do Re Mi" scenes from Sound of Music were shot), the White House (which is shockingly smaller in person than you'd expect), Prague Castle, Buckingham Palace, and Churchill Downs, among others. There are so many amazing things in the world to see and do that one could spend a lifetime trying to visit even half of them. I mean sure, the First Church of the Elvis Impersonator and the Cigar Box Guitar Museum are cool and all, but do they really have the unparalleled grandeur of, say, the Rocky Mountains or the stunning artistry of the inlaid mosaics in the Taj or the pristine beauty of the Great Barrier Reef?

But herein lies my problem--if I lack interest in visiting the cheesier of the world's many lame tourist attractions, how am I to keep my interest up (and indeed stay awake) while spending hours and hours in a car en route from one location to the next? When my daughter is with me, we spend a fair amount of time jamming to show tunes on CDs. We rock the duets in Wicked. When she is not with me or is snoozing peacefully, I often entertain myself with random road games. One of my favorites is spotting weird road signs and/or bizzare town names. Some favorite town names include Intercourse, PA, Braggadocio, MO and the ever-popular Bucksnort, TN. And every time I drive from my new home in GA to my old home in Memphis, I get to see a sign advertising the exit for two towns: Brilliant and Guin, which never fails to remind me of my friend Gwen, who is indeed brilliant.

I also like the sign for the FLICKERS Restaurant in Mississippi, which uses possibly the world's most unfortunate font, in italics no less, such that from a distance the L and the I form a U. I sometimes wonder exactly how many auto accidents have taken place within view of that sign because of all the motorists doing doubletakes and trying to determine what kind of restaurant offers such racy fare. Sadly, I have been unable to get a picture of that particular sign.

You can never tell what you'll drive by when you travel. Last fall I visited the aforementioned Brilliant Guin (who insists on spelling it "Gwen") in Michigan. On the drive up from Indianapolis I passed this windmill farm, with literally hundreds of these windmills. I'd never seen anything like it. I immediately pictured Don Quixote tilting at them from horseback. Of course, I also considered that they could be the illegitimate children of giant stick figures and transformers, but that's probably more than you needed to know about my warped mind.

Over New Year's my daughter and I made the 8-hour drive back to Memphis to visit her high school friends while everyone was home from college, which is slightly more difficult for her to do since we moved to GA two months after graduation. Have you ever noticed how we get into a sort of driving trance on long or familiar drives? It's as if your brain goes on autopilot, and you lose track of time and place, kind of like if you had TADD (Travel Attention Deficit Disorder). As a result, it becomes even more important to find ways of keeping oneself engaged and entertained, for fear of ending up in a ditch somewhere. When there are no amusing signs to mock, we frequently turn to remarking on the random and weird things we drive by, such as the three--count them--THREE Bingo parlors in Forestdale, AL. With a population of only 10,500 or so people, I find it fascinating that there is such a pervasive need for bingo there. What, they couldn't afford crack houses or pool halls? Did Professor Harold Hill suddenly decide to start hawking bingo instead of bands there? Not even Memphis has that many dedicated bingo parlors. Instead, we have Tunica, Land of the Riverside Casinos, where people play slots and craps and eat at giant buffets instead of slamming back Big Macs while stamping little red dots on a dense landscape of bingo grids.

Turning over 100,000 miles on the way home.

Bizarre as this bastion of bingo "baseness" was, nothing could top the inordinate number of strip mall churches that we passed. How's that for irony? Bingo Profiteering vs. Our Lady of the Strip Mall. We even saw a church in what clearly used to be a supermarket, complete with sliding doors. So how does that work, exactly? When you go in to worship, do you get to hear random announcements over the loudspeaker? "Holy Trinity on Aisle 3!" "Commandments on Aisle 10!" "Days of Christmas, Aisle 12!" "CLEAN UP on the Red Sea aisle!!" Presumably, it's cheaper to rent space in a dying strip mall than to sustain a free-standing church, but as irreverent as I tend to be, I would have a great deal of difficulty taking seriously any worship service which takes place in what used to be a supermarket. I would want to ask the pastor rude things like "Do you keep Hell in the freezer section so you can say that 'Hell Froze over?'" and "Do they sell the Bread of Life in the Bakery department?" or "Does Myrrh count as a fruit or a vegetable?" and "Do you have 2 for 1 specials on Noah's Ark Animal Crackers?" No doubt I would be charged heavily at the checkout for my deadly sins of Pride and Sloth. Hopefully there would be a rebate somewhere for them.

Travel broadens one's horizons just as surely as it broadens one's backside after hours and hours spent in planes, trains, buses, boats, and cars. It allows us to see the inestimable beauty in our world (which we often forget exists) while at the same time inspiring us creatively, even if it's only in making up stories for random strip malls. Besides, if I didn't travel, how would I ever get to see cool things like this:

(Because every tank needs twinkle lights.)

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