2011-07-13 / Opinion

Signs of the Times

by Alex McRae

The latest vacation pilgrimage was a pleasure. The weather was cool, the people were warm and the newest grandbaby, Michael Alex Willems, was an absolute delight in diapers.

Time on the road wasn’t bad, either. Angela and I made it to Lafayette, Indiana, in time to soak up some art deco architecture at Purdue University and dine at a favorite student hangout. We even bumped into a baby bunny prowling a patch of ivy. Nice.

Next stop, Door County, Wisconsin. Materials promoting the place describe it as everything from “unusual” to “unforgettable.” It was, packed with great sights and good eats.

The highly-anticipated fish boil at Pelletier’s restaurant in Fish Creek was spectacular. Angela had the camera rolling when the chef/owner hollered “Boil-over!” and threw a can of kerosene on an open fire over which chunks of whitefish boiled away in a big, black pot.

The flameout was fabulous, no humans were harmed, and the resulting feast was fabulous, without a hint of fuel oil in the flaky fish. The next morning I had Swedish pancakes in a Swedish restaurant with goats on the roof. Eat your heart out, Waffle House.

Just one thing would have made the trip better: some clever road signs.

If you travel by Interstate you soon realize that the signs are pretty much the same from coast to coast. Mostly because the dining and shopping offerings that line the Interstates are almost identical.

A few miles of bland, boring billboards always makes me long for the days when America’s home- grown creativity was displayed up and down the back roads.

Years ago, you could tell where you were by reading the signs. If you saw “Reptile Jungle Ahead” or “Buy baby alligators here,” you knew you were in Florida. Signs sporting longhorn steers meant you’d hit Texas. Other states had similar distinctions. “See Rock City” was everywhere.

A few vendors advertised nationwide, but even those signs were creative. Everyone loved coming across roadside ads pushing Burma Shave.

The sales pitch came in a sequence of five signs arranged in clever rhymes that you had to keep reading to get to the punch line. One of my favorites was:

“In this world

Of toil and sin

Your head goes bald

But not your chin.

Burma Shave.”

Those signs are long gone, and I miss them dearly. But the ones I miss the most are the religious signs posted on back roads by anonymous prophets, hand lettered on scrap lumber and tacked to trees or fence posts, screaming “ Repent,” “ The End is Near” or “Get Right With God.”

I don’t know if those signs scared a single soul into salvation, but they sure made the ride more fun.

A few of those righteous relics still dot the country’s back roads, but I was shocked to see one on an Indiana Interstate.

As we approached a generic exit sitting like an open wound amidst the lush cornfields, Angela and I did a double take at a sign screaming “Hell Is Real” in huge block letters.

Things got even better when we looked across the road and saw a big store with an even bigger sign advertising “XXX-Rated Adult Items.”

What a picture. Hell on one side of the road and pornography on the other. Talk about truth and consequences. Not to mention a masterpiece of target marketing. The old signposting back roads preachers would have approved.

The “Hell Is Real” sign may not turn sinners into saints overnight, but it’s bold enough to make travelers look—and think— twice. As far as Interstate highway signage goes, that’s a pure miracle.

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