Recently, upon finishing Proust’s mammoth, seven volume À la recherche du temps perdu, by which I mean skimming the opening pages in advance of this peroration, I found myself longing for the happy, carefree days of my youth. Which prompted a question: If the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past (variously translated as In Search of Lost Time and A Book You’ve Started Nine Times) had bitten not into a madeleine but a pecan log roll at Stuckey’s, would his mind have been transported not to the Belle Epoque but a full-service Texas travel plaza on the interstate, circa 1979?
And so it was that a few weeks later I found myself ripping open the cellophane of a pecan log roll and dipping it into my tea. Swiftly, the liquid in the cup grew cloudy and filled with little pieces of log, bringing to mind not my youth but something unmentionably disgusting. Then, however, I put the log to my lips.
The Pontiac Bonneville. The travel version of Hi-Q. Mom up front in her Simplicity pattern Jiffy Jumpsuit, Dad behind the wheel in a Budweiser print polo, sitting regally atop his Styrofoam donut. An adorable child asks his grandmother if he might sit next to her. He is rewarded with a kiss and a whiff of Tabu, a fragrance that Grandma calls “Grandma’s smell,” unaware that the man who created Tabu called it “a perfume a whore would wear.” The family does not tell her this.
I take a second bite. Everyone hates Barbra Streisand’s Wet album and yet it plays over and over on the car’s quadraphonic eight-track tape player. A little girl dressed in gingham encounters a field of bluebonnets, and then a water moccasin—Dad cusses Lady Bird Johnson. The lure of the open road leads the family to a remote barbecue shack, where they enjoy a delicious meal of ribs far from the reach of the health department. Later, Mom confesses to cramps so severe she cannot get out of her jumpsuit. She spends the remainder of the weekend queasy in Austin’s San Jose Motel—in her defense, this is decades before the whole kitsch revival thing—thus disappointing the children, who have waited all summer to see a mermaid drink Coca-Cola underwater at Aquarena Springs. Grandma counters that she has waited all her life to visit Port Neches, where you can see Jesus’s face in a screen door, and if that’s too much trouble, she will also settle for the Virgin Mary painting that weeps tears of myrrh at a monastery in Blanco. Next time, says Dad—unaware that by next time an eyedropper full of myrrh will have been discovered on the premises and the monks indicted in a sex scandal.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” Proust wrote, speaking not of the Virgin Mary painting or the temptations of blepharoplasty but the impulse of every traveler who has experienced the healing properties of a Texas highway. Sometimes we find ourselves disappointed that there is not a Proust around to novelize the road trips of our youth. But then we imagine reading a hundred pages before we get to Rosenberg and decide it’s maybe a blessing in disguise.