Along with watching birds on my long bicycle trips between several Western states and California, I developed a fascination with roadside signs.
Among the most
common were the hand-painted advertisements posted in many a rural
driveway. People were selling rabbits, nightcrawlers, boxer pups,
Fuller brushes, RV repairs, stud service, plants, dolls, mattresses
- you name it.
On the more formal business
front, I was surprised, but should not have been, to find that even
the most remote general stores displayed fresh green and red signs
for espresso, or just as often, "expresso."
dingy sign standing in front of a roadside market in the Cascades
did a fair job of summing up our consumer appetites in assorted red
and black block letters slid into a backlit
KODAK AGHA FUJI / ATM CASH MACHINE /
BACON 99ó LB / SCHMIDT SUITCASE $7.48
"suitcase" contains four six-packs, or over two gallons of
Mostly, government signs were dull. But
near Fish Lake, Utah, one sign fronting an aspen grove read "Forest
Regeneration Project." Then, in smaller letters, it said, "Firewood
Cutters Please Close Gate." Farther along the road a sign
proclaimed, "Shooting Prohibited," and then explained, "Firearms
Not To Be Discharged Within 100 Feet Of Campground."
For a stretch of days I found myself following,
in reverse, the path the Nez Perce took in fleeing the U.S. Army
across three states in 1877, marked now by a series of carved
wooden signs treating the flight as a heroic
"Here six of Chief
Joseph's braves fought off an entire regiment..." (A sign at a
ranger station invited one to "Enjoy the Nez Perce Experience!"
referring to the national forest by the same name, I assume.)
There were countless instructive signs on speed
limits and road hazards, distances and directions. SOFT SHOULDER
made me think of a particular girlfriend. EXPECT DELAYS - words to
live by, probably an ancient koan.
VEH XING on
a bike path - what language is that? Then there were the signs for
"airport," ordered from some generic supply catalog. They pointed
to a tiny rural airstrip, but the icon was a silhouette of a Boeing
Counting miles to upcoming destinations
became a reflexive pastime. White mile markers telling me I was at
mile 77.84 on county road 320, gave quantitative feedback on my
position; signs like NEXT SERVICES 65 MILES made me shiver. Perhaps
the most exciting signs were the ones picturing a truck headed down
an incline and reading 6\% GRADE NEXT 4 MILES - CHECK YOUR BRAKES.
I'd reached the end of a long climb and would in a moment be
swooping down the other side.
At city limits,
welcome signs often boasted that the high school football team (the
Bearcats, the Lumberjacks) had won the state division IV title
several years back, or that so-and-so famous person or
such-and-such technology was born there, or that it was, say, the
Thunderegg Capital of the World (Nyssa, Oregon). A current fad is a
kind of goofy Hallmark Greetings sign with a cartoon illustration
of a crowd of people and the words, "Home of 293 Nice Folks and 1
ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY LITTER CONTROL NEXT 2
MILES BY ... signs - and the litterlessness of the following
stretch of road - were clues to the active groups in an area, such
as a "Future Homemakers Club."
seemed to have adopted a theme, like five-block-long Bicknell,
Utah, where I counted 36 American flags in front of homes and
businesses. A diner in Bicknell sported a big sign for its Pickle
& Pinto Pie.
Some declared the working
identity of a community. "Pardner, You're In Cattle Country Now,"
read a huge homemade billboard in front of a ranch house. These
messages at times became political, like the yellow placards in
rural Montana living room windows that read, "This Family Supported
By The Timber Industry."
Other times the intent
was less than serious. A pit-stop town straddling a two-lane
highway in Oregon prominently displayed a sign for City Hall -
above a latrine across from the grocery store. Another good
roadside gag was the mailbox mounted atop a 12-foot pole and
labeled "Air Mail."
Bumper stickers gave
insight into people's beliefs and how they choose to label
themselves. From "Harley-Davidson" to "Mary Kay," the "Grateful
Dead" to the "National Rifle Association," "Free Tibet" to "Semper
Fi," "Shit Happens' to "Magic Happens," "I'd Rather Be Fishing" to
"My Other Car's A Broomstick," "Protected by Smith & Wesson" to
"Celebrate Diversity," "Rush Is Right" to "I Believe You Anita"
(still), "Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of
Beauty" to "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student," our tastes,
opinions, philosophies and concerns can be found stuck to our
vehicles as mobile road signs.
mostly the simple white crosses with flower garlands of the Mexican
tradition, marked where loved ones had died. One shrine near
Concrete, Wash., featured painted chunks of cement for three local
teens who had crashed earlier in the year. One pictured a broken
heart and its poem ended, "A piece of me went with you." Over the
boy's marker hung a black rock-band T-shirt and fleece jeans
jacket, both tattered from the weather, and against one of the
girl's markers leaned a full soda bottle - was it full of her
favorite drink, or water from a swimming hole? I was
Upon returning to San Francisco, I
recalled one of the things I enjoy about city life: People monkey
with billboards. Near a freeway entrance downtown, a Smokey Bear ad
that had read "Carelessness Spreads Like Wildfire" had been altered
by bicycle activists to read, "Car-lessness Spreads..." In my old
neighborhood, "Marlboro Lights' had become "Marlboro Blights."
My favorites were two blank signs (any writing
was long gone), one metal and one wood, that looked like art pieces
designed to illustrate the effects of exposure to the elements.
Colorful layers of paint, chipped and faded, decorated the wooden
sign, and erosion grooved its surface along the swirling grain. The
metal sign, corroded and no longer rectangular, was streaked with
rust, matching the coarse red dirt and striated plateaus around
Only one sign with text approached the
elegance of these wordless plaques. Along a lonely road in eastern
Washington I had passed a telephone pole with a paper plate tacked
to it. Perhaps it was the lone remaining segment of some kids'
Burma Shave-like roadside rhyme, the kind delivered one word or one
phrase at a time, or maybe it was someone's initials, although the
letters were all lower case. Whatever its intent, I found the sign
charmingly enigmatic. In permanent marker, all it said was "the."
This essay is adapted from
Roots and Wings: A Bicycle Journey Around the West, a 34-page
self-published chapbook available by writing the author at P.O. Box
421717, San Francisco, CA 94142. The cost is $6 which includes