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Pickup Truck Takes Its Place in Rural American Culture

NewsHour guest essayist Allen Morris Jones talks about a symbol of rural America, the pickup truck.

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  • ALLEN MORRIS JONES, NewsHour Guest Essayist:

    Have you ever paid attention to all the various ways we try to make ourselves unique? Tattoos and tongue piercings, stock portfolios and alligator shoes; we all seem to be identically anxious to prove that we are one of a kind.

    Consider the cars we drive. They're kind of like rolling billboards, aren't they? Our Hummers and hybrids, our tailgates full of bumper stickers and rearview mirrors strung with fuzzy dice. One glance, and it's like peeking inside a wallet, into a voting booth.

    For my part, I've lately been filling up the tank of my little 18-mile-a-gallon truck glum as a German philosopher. With a gallon of unleaded gotten as pricey as a gallon of milk, watching the dollars spin around like a possessed slot machine, I can't help but ask myself, why? Why am I hanging onto this expensive, environmentally iffy truck?

    Maybe it's the utility. Here in Montana, a working truck is the equivalent of a doctor's black bag, stuffed with every little thing that you need to do your job.

    One of my former high school teachers, a bird hunter with a set of famous Brittany spaniels, has dog kennels built into his bed. And most fishing guides I know tow their boats along behind, the beds filled with waders and rods and oars.

    If it's warm enough, a lot of us give our old black labs a ride. There are ranchers with rifles in the back window and snips of bailing wire on the dashboard. Passing each other on the county road, you wave a few fingers off the steering wheel. "The day is going pretty well, thanks."

    At the corner cafe, you pass the time with your forearms on the tailgate, catching up on what Ron and the family have been up to since the last time you saw them.

    Then there's the good, old-fashioned Iacocca patriotism, the clarion call to buy American, Ford versus Chevy. If you read the Wall Street Journal, maybe it doesn't matter anymore. But, you know, it feels like it matters.

    But most of all — and as high gas prices have come to threaten the pickup's future — I've been thinking that maybe this particular machine finds its real value as a kind of American archetype, a symbol for something larger than itself.

    In this ponderous, unconscionable arrangement of steel, oil and vulcanized rubber are all the possibilities of a good sunset horizon, of cowboys with stoic squints behind cigarette smoke, the 21st-century equivalence of Trigger and Silver.

    If the novels of Zane Grey and Louie L'Amour are any indication, we might not be the smartest guys on the block, but at least we have moral clarity. We have nobility of purpose. We have the self-righteousness of an unwavering belief.

    Certain politicians have understood this allure better than others. Red state or blue state, our heroes have always been cowboys. Here in Montana, we have a populist, gun-toting governor in a bolo tie. We have a new United States senator who used to be an organic farmer. But when they each climb into their carbon-coughing pickups, you can bet they are giving us a lesson in at least some part of what finally fuels American politics.

    As for me, and for now anyway, I'm keeping my truck. I'm Allen Morris Jones.

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