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The Column: The American road trip brings out the best in us

“Death to false pizza.”

What sounds like a coded World War II message to operatives behind enemy lines was merely a bumper sticker spotted at the Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the northbound New Jersey Turnpike.

We were returning from a family visit to Georgia — how a couple of Eastern elites managed to have a son lodged deep in Dixie is another story — when my wife, Wink, saw the false pizza sticker.

Numbed by the 900-mile trip, the crazy-making construction delays, the sensory deprivation of Interstates 95 and 85, and now the frantic, Darwinian traffic of the turnpike, we stood and laughed at the wacky message.

False pizza? Was this a dig at the gooey franchise stuff that advertises on television? A plea for authenticity amid the phony baloney of modern life?

No matter. It’s one of the things we’ll remember from our week away, a reminder that travel is an invitation to the unexpected.

Yes, it was just New Jersey and the bumper sticker might have shown up anywhere — turns out, it’s the slogan of a West Coast pizza chain that features pies with names like “Good Luck in Jail” and “Napalm Breath” — but you get the idea.

Leave home and the world awaits.

There is something reassuring about even the most ordinary of road trips — a sense of common purpose that comes when we line up for Cinnabons at the highway food court with our brother and sister Americans or pump gas at a backcountry service station next to a friendly fellow in bib overalls.

No doubt there’s plenty of rancor these days, but, hey, we all have to eat. We all run low on gas. Let them scream at each other in Washington. Out on the highway, we’re getting along just fine. Predictions of a second Civil War are badly overstated.

Wink and I have fresh proof.

Hungry as we crossed the line from South Carolina to North, we consulted the “Food” page of our GPS. A detour of only a few miles led us to Love’s Fish Box in Kings Mountain.

We ordered at the counter and, after a few minutes, came away with an enormous haul of fried shrimp, scallops, perch filet, French fries, onion rings and classic Southern cornmeal hush puppies.

After a happy half-hour of eating, we got ready to leave. I noticed a slippery spot we’d left on the floor and wiped it up with paper towel from the roll at each table.

“You can come round and clean my house, too,” said a woman eating a late lunch with her husband at a nearby table.

“Sure,” I said. “But I’d have to come round from New York.”

“Be all right,” she said.

Wink said hello to the couple. The woman mentioned volunteer work at the local hospital. Once, her husband said, the volunteer ladies wore pink. “Now it’s teal,” he said. Times change.

Most everywhere, we’ve found, folks are friendly — eager to chat, share their stories, wish you the best.

A woman working at a hotel in North Carolina motel mentioned a recent trip to Brooklyn — trendy Bushwick, no less! — and said she liked the borough even better than Manhattan. Brooklyn sure was something, she said.

In Georgia, a waiter we’d been talking to shook hands after a meal. In South Carolina, a kid at a local Mexican dive told us his dreams of a business career in the big city — Charlotte, North Carolina, a couple hours away.

On one of our last days, we got off the interstate and onto old Route 1 in North Carolina — a two-lane road that seems lost in time. Old gas stations, tiny post offices, general stores.

In a little place called Norlina, we spotted an American Legion banner that said: “Warren County Memorial Post: Diverse not Divided.”

The Legionnaires, black veterans in this case, were holding a benefit fish fry — fried fish is to the South what eggplant Parm is to Long Island — in hopes of raising money for a meeting hall.

We donated 20 bucks. The Legionnaires and their wives packed us a lunch.

“Great sign,” we said. “'Diverse not Divided.' What we need, all right.”

“Yes,” one of the men said. “Yes, it is.”

It doesn’t make sense to pretend America is all hugs, kisses and "kumbaya" — 15 minutes of cable TV prove otherwise — but hope often is renewed when you stray from the familiar path. Out on the road, stranger-to-stranger, there’s a lot more goodwill than false pizza.

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