I Brake for Brown Highway Signs (And Other Road Trip Thoughts)

Posted on: February 3rd, 2012 by David Garber 1 Comment

Although I formally count train travel as my favorite mode of long-distance transportation (something about gliding through countryside and cities, admiring the backs of buildings and never getting stuck in traffic), my far more prevalent travel mode is the road trip.

No boarding calls to miss. No need for real luggage (a laundry basket or bundle of reusable grocery bags will do). The chance to split travel costs with friends. Frantic fast food roulette (will the next exit have better options??). That backseat jumble of pillows, outstretched legs, and stray french fries. Beef jerky. Nighttime belting of 80s and 90s classics as a caffeine substitute during exit-less and therefore often creepy and winding stretches. And the total (read: schedule-dependent) freedom to detour and explore.


Something about these brown signs always draws me in. (Photo: Jun Belen)

The beauty of road trips is that they aren't just about the destination. Those stops at seedy, half-lit gas stations tend to make up roughly/statistically 50 percent of the stories and memories of the trip itself. Or so it seems.

And if I'm in the driver's seat (with no apologies to history-hating and/or sleeping passengers), some exploration is hard to escape.  I'm a sucker for brown highway signs - you know, the ones advertising so-and-so's birthplace and this-or-that historic district, for ramshackle and seemingly abandoned buildings (keyword: seemingly; see: Memorial Day 2011 road trip to the beach with pit stop at awesomely-ruined-looking house that, upon further inspection, appeared to be an active meth lab), and any food or pitstop option that has more of an air of local-ness about it than just another Chick-fil-A (*ducks*).


Gotta stop for the local (and good for you, too!) stuff. (Photo: Flickr user futurowoman)

A few weeks ago I took such a trip down to Lowgap, North Carolina with a car-full of friends. If you've ever been, you'll remember it as the place with more farm fields and random highway-side patches of English Boxwoods than, anecdotally and without any real information, anywhere else in the country. At one point during the trip we found ourselves on a riverside road in Lexington, Virginia, in search of a gas station - one of those "gas arrow is already below E" moments where everyone's got their eyes peeled.

We were rolling along when all of a sudden we whooshed past (then quickly circled back for a better look) a little silver-colored building shaped like a coffee pot - which turned out to be an actual quasi-historic roadside attraction that we had absolutely no intention of seeing... but saw. And googled. And now love.


The abandoned ones. They beckon me. (Photo: Flickr user kristina k. dymond)

Sometimes it feels like historic preservation is this very formal and staid task. And, sometimes, it is. We talk about it as a responsibility, which it certainly is. But our interest and engagement with old and historic places can be as casual as slowing down to admire a building shaped like a pot. Or running screaming from a creepy old house. Or easing the gas pedal while passing through an old main street. Our appreciation and interaction with these places, whether accidental, intentional, planned, or spontaneous, is one of the most crucial elements of their eventual memory and sustainability.

I think I'll probably keep braking for brown highway signs. And sneaking up to scary houses for a closer look. And detouring and exploring and finding and remembering. Join me?

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although he tends to prefer a more mellow playlist, he can say only somewhat ashamedly that, thanks to his latest female-heavy road trip, he now knows most of the lyrics to Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." At final edit, it appears the song will be stuck in his head for the remainder of the workday.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

General, Reflections, Travel

One Response

  1. Judy Moonsun

    February 3, 2012

    I’ll even do that extra 50 miles to Pittsburgh…