Along Highway 80 in Alabama, in that lonely stretch west of Selma, there’s a derelict gas station. It’s been closed for years. When I lived in Montgomery in the mid-80s, it had already been closed for years. It’s at the intersection of Highway 80 and a state highway, so I’ve always supposed that at one time it was a busier place. But when that was, is a question that’s intrigued me since I first saw the place while driving to Montgomery for the first time in 1984, and it came back to me when I passed it on the way to Montgomery a few years ago, and again last fall when I passed that way. I have this vision of a 1950s service station, with the oil cans stacked outside, and a desk inside where the owner ran the place, and a counter with glass jars filled with gumballs and jawbreakers; a back wall covered with belts and hoses, and a shelf on the side wall with oil filters neatly stacked. The sign out front has to be a Sinclair dinosaur – it just does.
I don’t know why this place has fascinated me so. There are plenty of abandoned gas stations scattered across the south. I suppose this place, like many others, is a throwback to a time of two-lane highways and 15-mile-per-gallon cars, and roads that wound through every small town, so a 250-mile trip took 8 hours, not 4 or 5, with frequent stops for gas and snacks and rest stops. Now we can blast along at 70 miles per hour, on wide interstates with wider medians and shoulders, so that the view along the way is a sterile strip of created, boring landscaping. Fifty years ago, a road like Highway 80 was a narrow line of concrete or asphalt winding through farmlands and fields, by isolated farmhouses, through small towns – through America, in other words. I wonder when that gas station pumped it’s last gallon of gas. I wonder when that America went away. Somehow, this old service station, on a lonely road that I generally drove late on a Friday afternoon going to visit my parents, or late Sunday afternoon going back to Montgomery – late weekend afternoons accentuate that loneliness – this old service station came to symbolize a lost part of Americana.