Road Candy: Traveling in America
Most travel narratives, perhaps all of them, even the classics, describe the miseries and splendors of going from one remote place to another. The quest, the getting there, the difficulty of the road, is the story; the journey not the arrival matters, and most of the time the traveler—the traveler’s mood, especially—is the subject of the whole business. I have made a career out of this sort of slogging and self-portraiture, and so have many others in the old laborious look-at-me way that informs travel writing. As V. S. Naipaul shrewdly explained in A Turn in the South, the traveler is “a man defining himself against a foreign background.”
But traveling in America is unlike traveling anywhere else on earth. Early on in my trip to the Deep South I stopped at a convenience store in a small Alabama town, aiming to buy a soft drink. But I had really stopped because the store sat on its own small slab of cement, on a side road, and was made of weathered boards, a rusted Coca-Cola sign nailed to the wall. On the front porch—a roof over it—was a bench where I could sit and drink and make notes. A store with a homely, enduring look like that had to be run by someone who’d talk.
A man of 60 or so, standing behind the counter wearing a baseball hat, greeted me when I entered. I took a bottle of soda from the cooler, and paying for it, I saw that the counter was crowded with glass bowls—like goldfish bowls—filled with small loose pieces of wrapped candy. It was a glimpse of my youth: Sam’s Store, on the corner of Webster and Fountain streets in Medford (circa 1949), the countertop of jars brimming with penny candy.
“When I was a boy . . . ,” I said, and the man listened politely to my memory. I finished saying, “We used to call it penny candy.”
“Road candy,” he said. “Eat it while you’re driving.” Road candy seemed to me a perfect summing up of the pleasures of driving through the Deep South. What I saw, what I experienced, the freedom of the trip, the people I met, the things I learned: my days were filled with road candy.
Breezing from place to place on wonderful roads seemed so sweet, so simple. Such travel is full of deceptions, though—especially that one, that the great roads are proof of prosperity and make America easily knowable. The paradox is that many roads in America lead to dead ends. The arrival is the object and the challenge, often in unexpected ways, in a country with an improvisational culture that makes a fetish of despising regulation. I was to discover that America is accessible, but Americans in general are not; they are harder to know than any people I’ve traveled among.