Driving from Rockford to St. Paul, Minnesota, is a bit like going back in time.  St. Paul (like La Crosse, Wisconsin, where we crossed over the Mississippi River just hours before it began to burst its banks) is relatively well preserved, unlike its clearly fraternal twin.

Much of the city is stunningly beautiful—from the immaculately maintained Summit Avenue, the height of Upper Midwestern bourgeois civilization, over to the century-old St. Paul Cathedral, down the hill to the capitol with its golden dome, and into the downtown, where Mickey’s Diner has remained open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, for over 65 years.  St. Paul Cathedral was the brainchild of Archbishop John Ireland, whose Americanism not only helped make the Catholic Church in America what it is (not) today but also made him the father of the Orthodox Church in America, when he overstepped his authority and refused to allow Fr. Alexis Toth to minister to Ruthenian Catholics who resided in the archdiocese of St. Paul.  Father Alexis, like many of his fellow Ruthenian Rite priests, was married (although he had been a widower for almost a decade by the time he came to these shores), and Archbishop Ireland (and many, many other Irish-American priests) could not tolerate the diversity of rites and practices within the Catholic Church.  Father Alexis took his congregation into the Russian Orthodox Church and, over the next 15 years, brought 20,000 Eastern Rite Catholics along with him.  (Most Orthodox churches in the United States that were founded before 1910 were originally Catholic.)

Yet this history is not what I meant by going back in time.  The experience is something much more banal: a sense of returning to the open road, to the “car culture” of the 1950’s and the decades that followed.

As gas prices have roared past four dollars per gallon across most of the United States (they are hovering just under in Minnesota and Wisconsin at the moment), local traffic has hardly been reduced at all.  That is not a surprise: Our jobs are farther away than ever from our homes, and few neighborhoods have their own Wal-Mart.

The interstates, however, seem to be a different matter.  Once we leave the vicinity of any city of any size (Rockford, La Crosse, St. Paul, Eau Claire, Madison), the traffic on this mid-June weekend drops to a minimum.  From 20 miles outside of La Crosse to 20 miles outside of St. Paul, we may have seen three-dozen cars in total.

Yet the absence of cars does not mean the absence of car culture.  Wisconsin and Minnesota highways may be no Route 66, but the cheese huts and regional gas-station chains with attached restaurants offering all-you-can-eat pancakes for $4.99 are relics of a more carefree time, when fathers could take a week or two or four off work during the summer and families would pile into faux-wood-paneled station wagons with no air conditioning and no seat belts, young arms and feet hanging out every window, tossing steel pop cans and sandwich wrappers and occasionally even expensive orthopedic shoes alongside the road, to the teary-eyed dismay of the noble Indian whose tribe had once cared for the pristine wilderness now being despoiled (as everything always is) by the white man.

The drive-in theaters of the postwar era are almost all gone, but a number of the drive-in burger joints and custard stands and ticky-tacky souvenir shops remain, as does that garish monument to American excess, the Wisconsin Dells.  Yes, McDonald’s is everywhere, yet on the highways it hardly feels out of place, being itself a relic of that car culture, the mobile equivalent of the TV dinners that the travelers happily consumed at home.

Having both enjoyed and suffered through such road trips myself in the latter half of the 70’s and early 80’s, I cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic for the days when a family could afford to “see the sights” and mark off each state, headed toward that glorious moment when they could stand at Four Corners and announce that they had now set foot in all 48 of the contiguous United States.

The lonely roads this weekend suggest that those days are coming to an end, and much of the postwar American lifestyle with them.  The General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, which makes trucks and Suburbans and is the largest employer in the county, will close forever in 2010.  A senior executive at Ford has suggested that high gas prices may force the company to curtail its light-truck business, at least in the United States.  Here in the Midwest, many of those best able to take time off and to afford road trips were those who worked in the auto industry or for the small manufacturers who supported the Big Three.  No longer.

My rented Mazda gets over 30 miles to the gallon, and it performs surprisingly well for a four-cylinder, but it is not a family car—at least, not a car for a family on vacation, even if that family, like most today, has only two children.  Part of me would gladly trade it for a Chevy Impala station wagon, rusted exhaust pipe held together by two clamps and an empty can of Campbell’s Bean With Bacon soup, with windows that often do not work and an AM radio with an antenna that rarely does.  And the 39 or 79 or even 99 cent gas that fed it all—the car, the pollution, the kitsch, and the memories.