What this fractured and politically uneasy country needs right now is a unified theory of pickup trucks. This thought came to me the other afternoon as I was waiting at a car-rental agency at the Denver airport. I had reserved one of those small cars--what the agencies cheerfully call "economy" class--when I saw, there at the back of the lot, a lustrous Dodge Ram extended cab. I am not often moved by automobiles, but the truck aroused in me an acute, forlorn kind of nostalgia that I had previously observed only in country music singers. When I reached the sales representative, I found myself yodeling, "Do you have any trucks?" The woman upgraded my reservation and directed me to a silver behemoth that was about the size of a Good Humor wagon. I scrambled up into the cab, revved the engine, and slipped The Very Best of Dwight Yoakam into the CD player.
I was in Denver to visit relatives, but the wide highways and mountainscapes offered a chance to rediscover my inner trucker. I don't own a truck in New York City, but that's not to say I don't fantasize about it once in a while. I would pilot my one-ton Powerstroke diesel down Houston Street on the Lower East Side, while the neighborhood's Dominicans, Jewish butchers, and hipsters formed a slow-moving parade in my wake. We would be like a post-gentrification army, led into battle by a Super Duty. Parking would be a problem, of course, but there's something else--something cultural--that makes owning a truck in New York feel verboten. In Texas, where I grew up, to buy a truck was to boast of your masculinity--of your connection with your agrarian forefathers. (And one needn't have been vigorously masculine, nor even had agrarian forefathers, to make this work.) In New York, owning a pickup announces that you are an unassimilated rube, more Hank Williams than Williamsburg. The next thing you know, you'll be hanging a Texas flag out your window and importing barbecue from faraway smokehouses.
This is not the first time I've been truckless. Growing up in Texas, where truck-owning is a ritual of the late teens, I endured the humiliation of driving a gently used Toyota Tercel. It was a rather sad and puny creature in a high school parking lot filled with Ford f-150s and Dodge Ram Heavy Duties. Though my classmates lived in large houses in Fort Worth, they outfitted their trucks as if they spent their days slaving away on a cattle ranch: mud flaps, winches, KC HiLites, lifts, brush guards. To this pornographic display of options, they added personal uniforms of pressed shirts, Wrangler jeans, and boots. Some days, it was as if Larry McMurtry had adapted Grease. And yet, despite this almost garish Texasness, no one seemed to have much stomach for doing the hard work of the land. At day's end, the trucks sat silently in large circular drives, the mud flaps unsullied and the winches unwinched. As a display of machismo, it was spectacularly effective. If anybody drove a sports car, I hardly noticed.
The nostalgic fantasy of the pickup truck isn't limited to Texas high school boys of the late twentieth century. Let me direct you to the 2006 edition of Road & Track's "Truck Buyer's Guide." There, you will find that the dude-ranch rhapsodizing is alive and well. The Ford f-150, the magazine notes, is "capable of handling the chores around the ranch," while the Dodge Dakota Night Runner--the stealth fighter of pickups, apparently --reminds the authors of a "moonshine runner." On television, Toby Keith, the maestro behind such recent hits as "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" and "Beer for My Horses," became the spokesinger for Ford's line of pickup trucks. A recent commercial found Keith bragging that his frame--heh heh--was bigger than that of Chevy and Dodge owners; in another, a hitchhiking Keith turns down a lift because the truck that stopped isn't a Ford. "We would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate personality to help us reach our audience," said one Ford marketing manager last May. This is the strange duality of the pickup truck. It must be urbane enough to navigate the boulevards of the New South while, at the same time, dignifying visions of running grandpappy's bathtub gin through the holler with Toby Keith riding shotgun.
The real mystery of the pickup truck is how it has remained popular in spite of its lack of practicality as a vehicle. As University of North Carolina historian William Ferris notes, today the pickup is really neither countrified nor citified enough. Real farmhands will tell you that the truck's bed doesn't have enough room for serious farmwork. Nor is a truck's cab (at least in its classic, pre-luxury state) comfortable enough for traveling long distances on the highway. The gas mileage is dismal--why the truck hasn't received the same mark of shame as the SUV is anyone's guess, though I suspect it's because Arianna Huffington doesn't know anybody who drives one. For me, the reasons to love the pickup are purely aesthetic. To climb into the cab is to connect oneself to the long-haul truckers. The unused space in the rear bed indicates big loads to haul, big jobs to accomplish. It's an obviously phony idea--a city slicker's fantasy of real work and the mythological American frontier of the Chevy ads where it supposedly takes place. But, somehow, that doesn't make it any less satisfying.
Back in Colorado, I steered my silver Dodge out onto the highway with a satisfying growl. A few miles later, a second pickup--a dented, dust-covered number--suddenly swerved into my lane, causing me to slam on the brakes. When I pulled up alongside it, ready for action, I noticed the driver looked like a mangier version of Merle Haggard--in other words, the kind of guy who is allowed a very wide berth. And yet, upon spotting me, he graciously nodded his head. The gesture seemed to communicate both apology and--if I was reading him correctly, beneath the bushy black mustache and wraparound shades--a kind of brotherhood in truckdom. We might be wholly different creatures, he seemed to be thinking, but at least we chose the same ride. Ours was a fleeting friendship, unlikely to be renewed at roadhouses and honky-tonks down the road. But, at that moment, rumbling high above the tarmac, all I could think was, We both have trucks.
Bryan Curtis is a Columnist for Slate.
This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.