Following old US-80 and its contemporary equivalents across the nation’s southern tier takes you through more varied cultural and physical landscapes than you’ll find along any other cross-country route. Throughout this roughly 3,000-mile journey, you can shift from one world to another in the time it takes to play a baseball game. Heading east from the golden sands of San Diego, within a few hours you reach the harshly beautiful Southwestern deserts, their trademark saguaro cacti creating a backdrop straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. The route’s central segment crosses the thousand-mile “you can see it for two days” plains of New Mexico and West Texas, where pump jacks jig for oil and cattle graze beneath a limitless sky. To the east spreads yet another land, starting at the cotton-rich Mississippi Delta and continuing along the foot of the Appalachians to the bayous and sea islands surrounding the country’s grandest little city, Savannah.
Especially memorable is the diversity of people and prevailing customs along the route, all highlighted by a range of accents and lingos. For travelers, this cultural diversity is perhaps most accessible in the food. Many regional American cuisines—Tex-Mex, Cajun, Creole, and barbecue, to name a few—were originally developed somewhere along this route, and roadside restaurants continue to serve up local specialties that lend new meaning to the word “authentic.” Along the open borders between Texas and New and old Mexico, in unselfconscious adobe sheds with corrugated metal roofs, chili-powered salsa accompanies roast-steak fajitas; in Louisiana, entrées featuring catfish fillets or bright-red boiled shrimp grace most menus; and everywhere you turn, roadside stands dish out reputedly the best barbecue in the universe. We’ve noted favorite places along the route, but all you need to do is follow your nose, or look for a line of pickup trucks, and you’ll find yourself in culinary heaven.
On an equal footing with the fine food is the incredible variety of music you’ll hear, whether it’s in a Texas honky-tonk or in the juke joints and gospel-spreading churches of Mississippi and Alabama. Along the Mexican border, from San Diego well past El Paso, radio stations blast out an anarchic mix of multilingual music, part country-western, part traditional Mexican, with accordions and guitars and lyrics flowing seamlessly from one language to the other and back—often in a single line of a song. Along the way, you can visit the hometowns of Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Otis Redding, or pay your respects at the final resting places of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Duane Allman. After dark, listen to the current and next generation making music in roadside bars and clubs.
A wealth of distinctive literature has grown out of these regions, and you can visit dozens of characteristic literary scenes, live and in the flesh: Carson McCullers’s “Ballad of the Sad Café” and other tales, which capture 1920s life in Columbus, Georgia; Cormac McCarthy’s wide-open tales of the Texas frontier; the diner from Fried Green Tomatoes; and the original God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road. But there’s also sober history, from Wild West Tombstone and Bonnie and Clyde’s death site, to the Dallas intersection where JFK was assassinated, to the streets of Selma, where the civil rights movement burst forth onto the nation’s front pages. Best of all, many of the most fascinating places along the way remain refreshingly free of the slick promotion that greets you in more established tourist destinations. The relatively low profile of tourism here, and the fact that only a few big cities lie in wait to swallow your vacation dollars, help make this part of the country relatively inexpensive for visitors—but even at twice the price, it would be well worth experiencing.