The West may not be literary, but it's littered with reading matter

  • Cement truck advertising a cafe

  • Loneliest phone sign

  • Bulle

    orn road sign
  • Eat sign

  • Author Douglas Warren Johnson

    Burhard Witt
 

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."

A 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 display:

KODAK AGHA FUJI / ATM CASH MACHINE / BACON 99 cents LB / SCHMIDT SUITCASE $7.48

A "suitcase" contains four six-packs, or over two gallons of beer.

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 epic.

"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 747.

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 Grouch."

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."

Some towns 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.

Roadside graves, 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 touched.

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 it.

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 mailing.

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