It was late August 1983, and I was working the grill at a McDonald's in Morgantown, W.Va. My blue polyester uniform was soaked through with the day's grease and each of my knuckles bore a small rose blemish marking a grill burn. And when I wasn't flipping burgers, I was failing calculus at WVU.

So my glee was understandable when one Friday afternoon I looked up from the grill and saw that my two best friends, Rob and John, had shown up unexpectedly. Grinning, they said in unison:

"Road trip!"

Later, I was surprised by the chain of events set in motion by these two words. I finished my shift--it would be my last--withdrew the remaining (small) sum from my bank account, dropped my calc class, piled into Rob's blue Volvo station wagon and headed for Assateague Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. My bosses at McDonald's knew I had quit only when I failed to show up for work the next day. And the next.

I declined to inform my parents of any of these events until much later. They would have considered me irresponsible, but I like to think I was exercising my inalienable rights as an American. After all, that's what our road trips are all about. Escaping. Hitting the road. Putting two lanes of blacktop in front of you and a bunch of bad memories behind.

Americans hardly invented the road trip--consider Moses, Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. But we did invent the Holiday Inn, which pretty much ends the argument.

The great American road trip is lovingly chronicled in "See the U.S.A.: Automobile Travel and the American Landscape," a sentimental exhibit opening today at the National Building Museum. The show breaks down the road trip into its components--gas, food, lodging, roadside attractions--and ties it together with a theme that effectively portrays the 20th century as belonging to the automobile--not to space or the computer--because cars not only helped us experience our broad landscape, but changed it as well, for better or for worse.

Everybody In! The automobile answered one need and created another, according to "See the U.S.A."

"No longer limited to the fixed routes and schedules of trains and other public conveyances, citizens could set out in a frenzy of self-mobility," reads one exhibit panel. In 1913, Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of automobiles--"a motor car for the multitudes," he called it--and that got Americans out on the road, sating an appetite for travel that had been whetted by the 19th-century heroic American landscapes of artists like Frederic Church and the rise of mass-circulation magazines, such as Harper's Weekly, that brought back stories of the frontier.

Once out on the roads, such as they were, the voyagers needed provisions. Thence came roadside architecture, which was "entirely different from any other aesthetic we'd known before," says John Margolies, a New York photographer and pop-culture lecturer who served as the exhibit's guest curator. The items in the show come from his collection of auto-related memorabilia and that of 50 others.

The new aesthetic was formed by the billboards that sprang up, as well as the flashing signs, massive parking lots and buildings shaped like ducks, dinosaurs, apples, cider barrels, fish and flying saucers. No longer were businesses trying to get the attention of people walking down city streets--now they were selling to people driving by at 40 mph. There's no other reason for the eye-catching bright orange roofs of Howard Johnson's or the teal roofs of Stuckey's.

Margolies clearly loves the kitsch fostered by early highway travel, and he travels the country to archive it as an American art form. The exhibit features his photos of extraordinary neon signs, of gas stations designed to look like Greek temples, of a huge crayfish on a pole wearing a cowboy hat and brandishing six-shooters.

It is a decaying art form. Up until the '50s, "getting there was half the fun." But then came the interstate system which, while efficient, replaced the roadside mom-and-pops--and all their attendant wackiness--with chain-restaurant interchanges. And now that family airline travel is relatively inexpensive, much of this nation's quirky roadside landscape has become simply "flyover."

In the exhibit's entrance hall is a wonderful yellow road map of United States, copied from a 1939 New York Daily News insert and enlarged into an 18-by-30-foot vinyl floor covering. Old-fashioned tourist sites like Hot Springs, Ark., are highlighted with comic-book-style illustrations.

In the "Gas" room are two ancient gravity-feed pumps. In the "Food" section is an exterior stainless-steel panel from an old roadside diner. The "Lodging" section includes a re-creation of an original Holiday Inn room, complete with avocado-color steel furniture. Before Holiday Inns, one popular roadside rest was the Wigwam Courts chain--tourists slept in individual cabins built to resemble Sioux wigwams. A photo of one Wigwam Court shows a sign bearing the slogan: "Do it in a tepee."

Rounding out the exhibit is a "Roadside Attractions" section, which includes photos of early, animal-cruel tourist traps featuring alligator wrestling and bear baiting. And there are the early theme parks, such as Storyland in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that inspired Walt Disney as he planned Disneyland.

And all of it thanks to the auto. Up through the '50s, the automobile was the totem of individual success and national greatness. Any other point of view might have been considered downright un-American.

Last Exit But that was all about to change.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," which jump-started the modern environmental movement. Her followers, the eco-warriors, expanded their cause beyond pollution and into aesthetics. During the 1960s, roadside architecture came under the first of many assaults. Lady Bird Johnson, horrified after being driven through a mid-'60s suburban strip, launched a "Beautify America" program aimed at razing billboards.

In 1968, the Montgomery County Council banned flashing signs. Communities began regulating the size of signs, their height, their colors and their typefaces; billboards are now illegal in a handful of states. If suburbia is criticized for its bland sameness, much of the blame should go to the municipal bodies that legislated aesthetics with a fascistic rigor.

None of this controversy is included in the "See the U.S.A." exhibit.

Likewise, nowhere in the exhibit are stories of the cross-country backseat sibling battles so hilariously described by Calvin Trillin, who once wrote of the "line of demarcation" between him and his sister, established by exasperated parents. Nowhere are mentioned the soggy wax-papered sandwiches and tepid coffee in the plaid plastic Thermos. And nowhere are the four words that have come to characterize the American road trip and all its claustrophobic, odoriferous, boiling-point gestalt:

"Are we there yet?"

This is because "See the U.S.A." serves as a memorial to a bygone era, rather than a debate of its merits. It is funded by billboard companies and, primarily, by American Express, which has an interest in promoting feel-good travel.

An anti-billboard group, Scenic America, has expressed concern that the exhibit glorifies exactly what the group is fighting. The museum's associate curator, Michael Harrison, said he welcomes the discourse and invited representatives of the group to lecture during the exhibit's six-month run.

As the debate continues about air pollution, greenhouse gases and shrinking oil supplies, some might consider the show as appropriate as a September 1929 exhibit on the glorious stock market.

And there is another issue. On one wall is a fantastic display of vintage road maps, issued mainly by oil companies; "petroliana" collectors would pay up to $300 for some of them. The cover illustrations are colorful and vivid, and represent idealized versions of Americans at travel. An auto winds around a majestic mountain road while, on an overlooking cliff, a Pilgrim couple watches symbolically. Most of the maps feature paintings, not photographs, to look grander than reality. Indeed, many evoke the social realist style so common in WPA and Stalinist state art.

On nearly every map--as on the exhibit's place mats, diner menus, motor court ads and postcards--happy families are at play. But the phrase that keeps coming to mind is:

"Wow. Look at all the white people."

The exhibit features a six-minute video montage of vintage road trip propaganda, to the tune of Dinah Shore singing "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet." One brief shot of a motel sign welcomes "colored tourists." Otherwise, black people appear only as dining room help on postcards. It is less an indictment of the exhibit than of the times. All told, it is a stark reminder that--despite the road-trip romance concocted by oil and rubber companies, motel and restaurant chains, and literature like Jack Kerouac's "On the Road"--the open road was not open to all.

End of the Road Nor was my escape from McDonald's and calculus as romantic as its inception. And therein lies a lesson.

The Volvo kept overheating in backed-up Route 50 traffic. We'd get out and push; it would cool off and run a bit, then overheat again.

By the time we finally hit Assateague it was night, so we had to set up our tents by the high beams. That's when we discovered that Assateague was the home of the largest, hungriest mosquitoes any of us had ever encountered. In the dark and the heat and the sweaty misery, we struggled to pitch the tents before being completely drained of blood.

"This must be what Hell is like," Rob kept repeating.

The point here is that road trips, like many of life's love affairs, often disappoint. When the weekend was over, I had to 1) make up the dropped calculus class, 2) find another job and 3) explain to my parents what I'd done before 4) asking them for more money.

None of which ever stopped me from taking further trips.

See the U.S.A.: Automobile Travel and the American Landscape is at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, until May 7; call 202-272-2448.

CAPTION: Before standardized chains, roadside lodging ranged from quaint (the tourist cottage) to gloriously quirky (motor courts, heavy on the neon), as illustrated in "See the U.S.A." at the National Building Museum.

CAPTION: A postcard from the late '30s shows a Florida service station with a nautical theme in "See the U.S.A."