- Historic Sites
Caution: I Brake For History
A BOLD NEW KIND OF COLLEGE COURSE BRINGS the student directly to the past, nonstop, overnight, in squalor and glory, for weeks on end
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
American popular culture is taken seriously on the Majic Bus. Whether it’s a lecture on Parson Weems’s George Washington given on the banks of the Rappahanock River, whence the myth of the first President’s silver-dollar throwing feat emanated, or spending an uproarious afternoon in Hollywood with the legendary cartoonists William Hanna and Joseph Barbera learning how Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear were conceived, popular culture proved a vital line of inquiry in our quest to understand the essence of America. We toured the International District in Seattle, ascertaining the importation of everything from karate to ginseng, and we visited the grave of the actor Bruce Lee, the first nonstereotypical Asian-American celluloid hero. In Chicago we took a Gangster Tour, which explored the murderous careers of Big Jim Colosimo, Dion O’Banion, and Al Capone, the early architects of modern organized crime. When we heard that a baby white buffalo had been born on a Wisconsin farm, the Majic Bus veered northward from Chicago to pay homage to the prophetic animal that many Native Americans consider sacred. Comic books and pinball machines, television and baseball, McDonald’s and Wal-Marts are given the same close scrutiny as the canon classics, for like the greatest works of literature, they provide an essential vantage point from which to peer into defining aspects of our collective culture. Every year Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and other, more offbeat roadside attractions are favorite spots. Bigfoot and jackalopes, Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan all tell us about ourselves. Like archeologists on a dig, we exit interstates to unearth forgotten stretches of old Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway. Stopping for breakfast at greasy grills, we hear locals recall a time when drifters and families alike headed westward to our last great promised land. Today, like chunks from the Berlin Wall, pieces of these great abandoned roads are sold in plastic packets by clever children making a buck.
The hardest part of “American Odyssey” is the return. After we’ve shared so many compelling experiences, goodbyes don’t come easily. But life goes on—and goes on enriched by all the lessons learned, risks taken, books read, tolerance acquired, minds opened, memories captured, curiosity piqued, and joy embraced. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said of our enterprise, “The Majic Bus redis- covers our America, and the end of all our ‘On the Road’s is to recognize ourselves for the first time.”