Billboard Boulevard: Sex, fireworks, guns and God

The former railroad depot in Rural Retreat, Va., on our route. A lot of "former'' this and that on our route.

The former railroad depot in Rural Retreat, Va., on our route. A lot of "former'' this and that on our route.

Adapted From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Leaving our wives behind in Rhode Island (they had better things to do), an old friend and I drove the inland route to Florida the other week, mostly to check out what was happening in the inland southeastern corner of “Flyover Country.’’  We traveled in a huge Chevy Suburban, whose gas-guzzling appetite was gargantuan. Thus we did our part to boost global warming as we drove through weather that stayed nippy until we got to not-very-lovely Ocala, Fla., where it finally warmed up.F

Much of the route was in  the Appalachians, with the most spectacular sections, of course, in Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina. I was particularly eager to see the Smoky Mountains again. Some of my East Tennessee relatives had taken me up there when I was a boy. On this trip, the mountains still looked softly spectacular.

Most of the folks we met on the way were at least superficially friendlier than New Englanders, who tend to be guarded. I’m mostly referring to hotel staffers, restaurant workers serving deliciously unhealthy  fatty and salty Southern food, the personnel in a Civil War museum in the Shenandoah Valley, in Virginia, who had good feelings about the Confederacy and the good ole fraternity house boys near the campus of the University of Georgia, in  Athens. In front of their plantation-style house, they gave us directions to a couple of quirky restaurants, one of which would have fit in well in late ‘ 60s San Francisco, with waiters in clothes that looked like Hippie outfits, or at least Halloween versions of same.

Athens and  Asheville, N.C., (also a college town) were the most engaging cities we visited.

There were innumerable attractions along the way, with seemingly every burg with more than 5,000 people with a museum or other attraction peddled on roadside signs, with such curiosities as upside down airplanes as graphic blandishments. I particularly liked such examples of local charm as the large but mysteriously closed auto museum (with big car models  sticking out from the brick exterior walls) in a remote area of Georgia; the billboard advertising “Virginia’s only cavern with elevator service’’;  a Virginia town named “Rural Retreat,’’ and a village in North Carolina called “Forks of Ivy.’’

But most illuminating were the big billboards along the Interstates seeming to give contradictory messages about the region’s moral climate. Hypocrisy, or just psychological/ sociological complexity in the Bible Belt?

Among the most numerous billboards were for those “Adult Superstores’’ (porn and sex toys), along with such related enterprises as strip joints (“Café Risque: We Bare All’’);  gun markets and such related attractions as “Machine Gun America,’’ and Protestant evangelical churches (“Jesus Paid for All’’), some of them put up to promote attendance at an individual institution in a small town. There are lots of simple crosses but we didn’t spot any roadside crucifixes. This  was Protestant Bible-thumping country.

And, yeah, fireworks signs remain plentiful. But with the loosening of fireworks-sale controls in the Northeast, that draws much less excitement for travelers from up here these days. I remember my father filling the back of our station wagon with fireworks he bought in South Carolina back in the early ‘60s on our way back from Florida. That both my parents smoked added a touch of suspense to the rest of the trip home.

The billboards become more conventionally commercial from Orlando south, but then as they say, the further south you go in Florida, the further north you go.