Manifest destiny…a West-ward orienting tropism…call it what you like. Consensus seems to be that humans in general and Americans in particular need to move. Agee, like thinkers both before and after him, links this restlessness to divine impetus. So it is that the automobile is framed as a gift from God, comparable to light.
This is somewhat ironic; the role of the automobile in American history is fascinating, and my first interest in it developed when I learned that our incorporation of the automobile into our national self-branding was one of the reasons we never developed a strong public transportation system. The exclusivity of the suburbs—and certain cities, such as L.A.—was and is partially guarded by the fact that life in these places requires a car and all its associated costs.
The car is a key part of the American dream. It symbolizes freedom…or something like that. Today it also symbolizes pollution, oil wars, upkeep expenses, the curse of the suburbs, and foreign manufacture, but originally it was something almost sacred. The auto industry one of the prides of the nation, especially since it was the place where the idea of the assembly line was born and put into action.
The phenomena which developed correlative to the automobile, such as roadside markets and motels, Agee declares practical and so permanent. Of course, roadside markets have existed for as long as roads have. The difference with the automobile road was that it allowed for more spread out shops, since drivers covered more distance than horse-drivers. The petrol-station developed, as did the mechanic’s shop.
I wonder if this was the birth of the strip mall? The source, ultimately, of lemonade stands, drive-in movies, Sonics, and Swiss Farms markets? It is strange to imagine the country clamoring to fill the needs of automobile drivers as those needs developed. And then with the ‘great migration,’ the population on the road developed even more needs. Two years ago, I saw the first traffic light in Germany in Berlin. The first traffic light in America was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, though I haven’t seen that one. But can you imagine celebrating a new traffic light?
Another need of the drivers was overnight shelter. As explained in the text, road-trippers started out in road-side camps. Those camps were evolved into home-stays, where the camp would be set up in someone’s backyard. And then trailer camps developed as trailers developed.
The measure of the space rented at the early motels is given in the article as 10’ x 12.’ Those are the same dimensions as the horse stalls I used to clean; how a bed and kitchenette were both fit into that space, along with a family, is something I can’t imagine.
Though Agee said that these types of cheap overnight lodgings had become a permanent fixture because they were so practical. Today, they still seem practical for young shoe-string budget travelers. Yet that form of the motel doesn’t exist anymore. We still have trailer parks, but trailers tend to be stationary. Interestingly, our public transit system hasn’t evolved as much as the motel system has. And my family at least still stops at various caverns and state parks when we road trip.