A Guide To Worldwide Road Culture

Most of us love a good road movie or a song about “runnin’ down the road tryin’ to loosen my load”, the latter even better when we’re behind the wheel. The idea of escape is integral to the way we think of driving and cars, highways and far horizons.

But, it’s also possible to think of the ribbon of asphalt as a story in itself. Roads and highways tell their own stories, and create their own artistic expressions. From roadside saints to motorway sculptures, and from the American diner to British beachfront car-parks. It can even be argued that roads are artworks in themselves – important, and potentially as inspiring, as great cathedrals and soaring skyscrapers.

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Saints And Shrines

If you find yourself behind the wheel on a remote stretch of Argentina’s epic Ruta 3, which runs from Buenos Aires down to Tierra del Fuego (the last stop before Antarctica), there’s no need to feel lonely. For, sooner or later, your vista will fill with a vision of scarlet. At first you’ll think it’s a mirage or garish advertising hoarding, but as you draw closer, you’ll see that it is in fact a great expanse of red flags, marking the site as a shrine to Gauchito Gil. The little cowboy figure is a kind of Robin Hood hero of the poor, bullied by the authorities but a war hero, possessed of healing powers and the ability to resist bullets.

Another local roadside saint is the ‘Difunta Correa’ – a poor woman who, according to legend, walked a long way down a lonely road to save her husband and her baby. She is sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Broken Fanbelt (“correa” means “fanbelt” in Spanish).

Diffunta on Argentina’s Ruta 3

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Other South American countries boast their own holinesses of the hard shoulder, notably ‘Our Lady of Andacollo’ in Chile and ‘Santa Muerte’ in Mexico. These are popular saints, their shrines decorated with toys, soft drinks, books, and what looks like litter. Meanwhile, in the town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, drivers bring their new vehicles to be blessed by the virgin. They polish their cars and vans, decorate them in flowers and garlands, and pray as the priest sprinkles holy water on the bonnet.

Don’t be surprised, for centuries the faithful have travelled down lonely roads… what is a road trip if not a modern-day pilgrimage?


Diners And Drive-ins

We travel to the northern half of the continent for hedonistic expressions of highway culture – and what could be more American than the roadside diner?

American Diner

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Invented in 1872 and almost an instant success, the diner was revamped for the mass market auto-user in the 1930s, as architects began to copy the Streamline Moderne and Art Deco styles of trains operating on USA railroads. Though superseded by fast food outlets, diners retain a devoted following, and have featured in TV series such as Happy Days and films including Grease and Groundhog Day. Iconic diners beloved of modern car tourers include the Iowa 80 Kitchen (built 1964) in Walcott, Iowa, the Blue Benn (built around 1945) in Bennington, Vermont, and Norms (built 1957) in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Drive-ins are around a century old but had their apogee in Fifties and Sixties, when teens and young adults embraced car culture and families began to go out together – drive-ins allowed parents to babysit in situ, saving money and stress. Shankweiler’s Drive-in in Orefield, Pennsylvania, open since 1934, is said to be the oldest extant site. The field of Dreams Drive-in at the Liberty Center, Ohio, and Bengies, Baltimore, are two other classics.

There’s been a revival of drive-ins since the 1990s, inspired partly by pop-up or “guerrilla” gatherings and also by new technology that has made open-air screenings clearer than ever. While wet and wintry weather has made drive-ins more of a pop-up affair in the UK, similar rituals exist, such as taking your sandwiches and flask of tea to the beach and sitting in silence looking out at the gulls, clouds and grey sea.


Commerce And Other Clutter

It’s not a exaggeration to say that human civilisation is a roadside phenomenon.

But to get a deep sense of how all life clusters around roads, you have only to drive along an iconic thoroughfare such as India’s Great Trunk Road, running 1,600 miles from Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul, Afghanistan. Like almost all highways it had precursors, and there’s been a trade route here since as far back as the 4th century BC. But the modern route, wherever it hits a conurbation, teems with life: donkey-carts, cows, rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, cars, buses and trucks jostle for space on the road, while the edges are a whirl of aromatic food stalls, temples, mosques, dusty truck stops, filling stations, houses and hostelries.

Ancient trading routes – like the Silk Road across Asia, the Amber Route between Italy and the Baltic, and the Camino Real mule-train routes across South America – continue to survive in one form or another. Modern paved highways were laid out on old dirt and stone paths, and what were once caravanserais and inns are now villages and even large towns. One of the joys of driving is to imagine the ghost traffic that once passed the same way.

Karakoram Highway

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The age of iconic highways is not over. The Karakoram Highway – also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway– opened in 1966 and is one of the highest paved international roads in the world. Roads continue to drive economies and to bridge nations.


Sculptures And Signage

UK roads are dotted with majestic modern artworks, from Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ at Low Fell overlooking the A1 near Gateshead, to Serene de la Hey’s walking ‘Willow Man’ on the M5 near Bridgewater, in Somerset. The good folk of St Helens, Merseyside can enjoy a quick glance at Jaume Piensa’s dolomite ‘The Dream’ during their morning commute, while the M8 at Bathgate in Scotland is bordered by Patricia Leighton’s pyramids, sculpted out of the land, as well as coloured sheep and – every November – giant poppies.

Public art, which historians generally say dates from the 1930s – though you could argue it’s as old as the pyramids – is an attempt to bring the gallery to the people, without all the class and education barriers of institutions. But what is art and what is merely useful? When is a sign also a signifier of something more inspiring? Signage for the old Route 66 in the US fills drivers’ heads with songs and myths, even though the original highway has been broken up and largely absorbed by newer, functional throughways. Road signs provoke ideas, passions, memories. Ask any Welshman what he thinks of when he drives the A465 or ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road? His head will be filled with miners, steelworkers and dreams of rugby glory.

Route 66

Image Credit: iStock.com/Waynerd

There are some who contend that a road itself is art: “my idea of a piece of sculpture is a road,” wrote American minimal artist Carl Andre. Certainly, when the first motorways were built in the UK, people came out to celebrate the openings and many people with houses overlooking the roads were (initially, at least) delighted to have the free spectacle of fast-flowing traffic across six lanes.

Perhaps it’s time we begin to see the majestic in our motorways and the mysterious in our leafy lay-bys. Is the M25 not the CERN of (atomised) human movement? Isn’t an empty car-park as stirring as an Edward Hopper painting or an ambient soundtrack? In his compelling study entitled ‘On Roads’, historian Joe Moran points to the placing of LED lights on the Queens Drive Flyover at the Liverpool end of the M62 as an example of “how roads may one day be remembered and re-enchanted.”

See Chris Moss’s feature on the best books about the open road here.

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