Long before I’d settled on writing this book, I found myself drawn to the Appalachian region. In 1997, I sent out to cover The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale for a little magazine in San Diego, the name of which I no longer remember.
I do remember that they paid next-to-nothing, maybe a few hundred dollars, and they almost never responded to any correspondance. This did not stop me from declaring the assignment a go.
I grabbed my friend Monte, a straight-laced looking guy who was just weird enough to get into a car with me to drive into the night. (Never, ever trust the straight-laced looking guy.)
We arrived in Gadsden, Alabama at the Warhorse Museum sometimes after sunset on a Friday night.
This was the perfect launching ground for my first experience on the route, and in the writing you can see the beginning of my attempt to both place and displace the mythologies of Appalachia long before I realized my family’s role in those mythologies.
Here is the original piece, penned in 1997 after our trip.
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The Lost Highway
The lucid tale of the future of pop culture, the longest unknown highway & the last unexplored vestige of Americana.
By Brad King
Photos by Monte McCarter
“Passions, prejudices, fears, neuroses, spring from ignorance, and take the form of myths and illusions.” –Sir Isaac Berlin
“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what sells.” –Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
Friday, August 15, 1997.
Huddled in a corner table with five strangers in a small neighborhood bar called the Warhorse Museum & Lounge, thirteen hours of Budweiser and speed my only friendly companions since Monte, my photographer, staggered out to the rental car hours ago, I have lost any grip on the reality of this story.
The fifteen hours of darkness & 850 miles through the back roads & hinterlands of tiny Dixie towns we traveled to get here are long forgotten and part of a different existence now as the daylight creeps over the horizon. We stumbled across the end of the road. The edge of the earth.
We are in Gadsden, Alabama.
There is only fear.
There will be no covering “The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale,” like I promised my editors. We have already missed the first day anyway. What started out as a simple story involving a little street-side shopping along the 450-mile scenic route from Kentucky to Alabama…all that is gone now.
Monte is puking his guts out behind a dumpster while clutching a copy of The Watchtower, a piece of Armageddon literature given to him by the Jehovah’s Witness who startled him awake by banging on the passenger-side window of the Ford. When he opens the door the Warhorse, letting in the evil beams of light that remind us all that it is indeed nine in the morning, there is a general stir of unspoken disdain by my new found friends.
I am at a table with a large black man whom I cannot understand, a gravely-voiced woman sporadically sings lyrics to whatever song is playing on the juke box & the middle-aged woman whose chair keeps moving closer to mine as she announces over & over to her male friend, who just woke up from an hour-long nap, that this time she and her boyfriend are completely finished.
“Brad, we’ve got to get out of here. This sale is getting started.”
“Hell no. I’m not leaving. I’ve got a beer to finish and my friends and I are having a conversation. I can’t leave. This is my home. Screw the story. Screw the flea market. I’ve got drinks. I’ve got friends. I’m never leaving.”
My Marlboro burns. My beer and shot glass are full. Monte is afraid. Escape is now ridiculous and absurd. A foolish trifle to be reckoned with at a later day. All that is left is to bolt the doors, keep out the sunlight and go from there…
Jesus, we are at the end of a U.S. Route 127, a road that doesn’t exist on most large roadmaps and the last stop at the 11th annual sale.
“This shit makes more sense when I drink,” is what Monte said after his seventh 7&7, hours before he staggered out to the Ford and his ensuing paranoia set in. And he is right.
This is a place where 9-to-5 sensibilities, the ones that lean towards self-preservation and responsible action cannot be used to judge. This is a place of grand magnitude and spectacle. Where the physics of reality…what you & I believe…does not exist. Where that cancer-racked Marlboro man is more than just an advertisement.
I have seen the future of our culture…of the pop culture we cling to so dearly now…of the general culture we live in at large. Here, these people — the hillbillies…rednecks…white trash…mountain folk…and whatever other name you’ve heard them called in the movies and books — wander freely amongst themselves.
This is their world. We are only interlopers.
* * *
That’s what my notes said anyway. At least the one that didn’t get left when I was so rudely awakened from my nap in the shower by the maid who implored Monte & I to leave immediately.
Now I am safely back in the comfort of my den, trying to piece together what exactly happened during our three-day trip.
It is a haze of private, after-hours clubs in the middle of nowhere, all night drinking binges, and stereotypes & clichés walking and talking to us. Strange creatures lining the roads with 8-track Elvis tapes, second hand clothes, romance novels & Smurf glasses.
In an age of high-tech communications and modern warfare, the fact that this event goes on and these people exist seems too surreal to actually exist.
Gadsden resembles the cousin who leaves the farm and heads out to a four-year university & never quite finds a way to fit into the ivory towers of higher learning yet never quite regains the old country bumpkin feel of the town they left. It is a town with an expanding downtown, a tiny riverfront, a rather large city point where adults & kids can hang out playing volleyball and such. But this is not the big city. Not even close.
That is why this town is the perfect last stop on the 450- mile journey which begins in Covington, KY and winds down through 89 counties, attracts 3100 vendors and brings nearly 100,000 people to this annual event which was originally designed to draw tourists off the major highways and into the hills of the rural south.
Trailers and cars are packed with personal belongs – many of which are ancient pop culture relics from the late 50s and 60s – which are put out to pasture one last time in hopes of bringing in a little money for the family before their wares are donated to their final resting place…the local Goodwill.
But it isn’t the relics that attract most of the potential buyers and sellers. It is more a sense of family and familiarity. A down-home, good time had by all where everyone is welcome.
You’ll never meet nicer people in the world than the folks like James, a large motorcycle-man who ran the Warhorse, who pulled me aside to offer some advice on parts of Alabama we might visit.
Or the grandma, sitting amongst her tables full of memories & memorabilia who offered an invitation to Monte and I even as we walked by her table with hardly a glance at her wares.
“Now, you all come back. We’ll be here again next year in the same place.”
Or the people, nearly an hour drive outside of Gadsden, who came up to Monte as he walked around with his camera inquiring if indeed we were the young fellows with the magazine in California.
Everywhere we went, there was a general buzz of excitement and pleasure.
That is the nature of country folk. It’s a simple life, with simple pleasures & simple rewards. They asked nothing other than an ear, a little conversation & genuine hospitality.
A place seemingly of beauty and love that the purveyors of the culture these folks were now selling never truly achieved.
* * *
In a time when ABS Global Inc., is cloning cows up in Wisconsin and more than 20 million Americans are logging on to the Net, places like Gadsden depend on events like this sale to draw people to them, into their world, where interacting is just a little safer for them. It’s on their turf, by their rules, and without our judgment.
And if you think they are backwoods and uneducated, remember the pop culture we cling to today is a powerful tool used by the fine fellows of Madison Avenue to sell and shape our thinking.
Now imagine the power of the pop culture these folks are selling along the sides of the road.
With little traditional advertising and modern conveniences, consider what has been accomplished along this back road & in the age of the “Sell-Out,” consider how they have managed to stay true to their goals and not go after the next generation of MTV kids.
So while Dr. Kimberly Long claims nearly half of all net surfers are addicted to the logging on & have begun creating alternative personalities which to the average middle-class suburban cat is the first road to insanity, there is a certain normality to the procession of rural folks who come here to sell their wares.
If 10 million people can be addicted to a computer, surely 100,000 can be addicted to walking & talking with nice people.
There is a certain rightness that you can only see if you fight the fear & sit down and just chat about their rheumatic arthritis, the wonders of the dual- turbine engine & the domination of Hank, Sr. to any country singer out there today.
It doesn’t seem like such a hard thing to ask.