Driving the heartland, all rust and dust. The cities look worn and tired. Streets broken crumbling under the relentless onslaught of tires. The people are a clichéd rainbow race energized and in a hurry, cars a crush on the highway. But sitting in the sun on a warm November afternoon at an ice cream shop everyone is relaxed and friendly
Off the interstate down two lane country roads the fields stretch flat and fallow, all gray above shades of brown below. The people are mostly white and overweight moving slowly even in the crisp autumn air. This is the domain of the angry white men. Each one I meet is friendly and polite. The land of white bread and pie, pickups with dogs in the back.
Each a snapshot, each a slice of America, a piece of the mosaic, gather enough and step back to see the bigger picture. We do that with our cross country drives. In the last fourteen years we have done some variation of this 27 times. Patterns emerge of both place and time from following all those miles of asphalt and white lines. Most of those miles are on interstates although we try to get off the beaten track in places small and large. Interstates are boring but fast. They are good economic and social indicators. The arteries of the nation carrying goods and people, they ebb and flow, they pulse with cars and trucks pumped from an unseen heart.
The traffic on the interstate Is a good gauge of the economy. In 2003 in that nervous gap between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, traffic was light and as gas prices soared stayed that way. Subsequently traffic increased as the country settled into the new normal. With the financial meltdown in 2008 traffic plummeted, down at least 25% and tractor trailer volume down 40-50%. Fewer trucks and SUV's, more cars that took less gas. Then a steady rebound began, picking up steam each year. Now, while some people have been left out of the recovery, on the road big rigs are nose to tail and the cars, SUV's and pickups get bigger and bigger. On the road it looks like boom times.
Interstates show you the changing economy in other ways. In West Texas you now see more windmills than oil pumps. The tractor trailers have sprouted aerodynamic appendages. Speed limits have creeped up to 80 in Texas. But most noticed is the homogenization, the corporatization. Pull off any exit and it's like groundhog day. Stamped out with a cookie cutter every stop looks the same; a MacDonald's over there, a row of gas pumps at the travel plaza with the same brands, a Subway in one corner. The restrooms are in the back so you have to walk past all the snacks, beverage coolers line one wall. You could be anywhere from Ohio to Oklahoma, Indiana to Texarkana.
Need to stay overnight? You will find the same motel brands - Holiday inn, Comfort, Red Roof and on and on. Local motels have been reduced to places that look like a drug deal could go down at any time.
Restaurants follow the trend. Fake Italian at Olive Garden, a fantasy neighborhood at Applebee's, Chilli's Mexican masquerade, even the occasional local place now acts like a chain - the scripted greeting from your server, the suggestion of an appetizer while you peruse the menu, the portion control meals, the themed décor. Corporate food from corporate farms. The lingering flavor of fertilizer and pesticides.
Even regional language and speech are fading. Maybe it's because of TV or the increasing mobility of people. There was a time when you knew as soon as someone spoke that they were from Long Island or the South. Now, no matter where you are, most people sound vaguely Midwestern. They are not from anywhere.
There are some distractions- local attractions still unique in time and place. We passed up the world's largest golf tee but stopped to see the nation's largest cross. The vertical column Is a gleaming white obelisk 198 feet tall, the arms stretch east and west 113 feet. It is a Christian symbol but devoid of religiosity. Maybe because Jesus is always depicted as human that you can't imagine him on a cross this big. Easier to relate to are a row of Cadillac cars buried nose down in the desert of West Texas tailfins sticking up like giant jackrabbit ears - Cadillac Ranch as it is known. Americana at its best.
For anyone who goes not believe that God is everywhere they have not driven across the country punching the seek button on their radio. Scanning across the radio dial to nothing but static suddenly a clear masculine (it is always male) voice invites you to accept Jesus as your savior. That same voice will follow you from Ohio to Oklahoma and beyond. There are helpful road signs on the billboards. A recent one asked, "where will you spend eternity?" An interesting question but given where they place these signs the answer that jumps to mind is, well, certainly not here.
Each excursion paints a bit more of the picture and provides food for thought. But sometimes the pieces don't quite fit together. It seems ironic that as the country becomes more regimented by corporate institutions and conduct and as so many local customs and businesses appear to be in decline that the nation is so divided politically and culturally. Perhaps political, social, and religious differences and antagonisms are a way of rebelling against the blandness of a homogenized world.
One Small Voice
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