“Infinity pleased our parents, one inch looks good to us.” –ee cummings
The worst kept secret about America is that it is horribly boring up close. Terribly boring. Horrendously boring. Catastrophically boring. Worse than could ever be described justly in words.
Jack Kerouac had some ideas about how being on the road is an amazingly illuminating experience that cleanses the soul of stagnation. He saw magic around ever corner. The country Kerouac was looking at had about as much to do with the modern day Ohio Turnpike as the surface of Mars does. What would Jack have made of the Wal-Mart truck that I’ve just watched next to us for the last two hundred miles? Or seeing 100 McDonalds parking lots in eight hours? Or having his 6-year-old daughter splash a Capri Sun on to his neck while trying to outrun a truck driver who watched Duel to many times? Or the Hampton Inn billboard that shows a family so overwhelmed by happiness over seeing their 89 dollar a night room that they look like they are spontaneously going into anaphylactic shock? The America that I have been driving though for the past three days would have made Neil Cassady jam a knitting needle through his forehead.
There are no metaphors that do it justice. Every year the family and I hop in The Misery Machine (our name for the fine piece of engineering that is our 2001 Ford Windstar van) and drive and drive and drive and drive until we reach Valhalla (or Minneapolis, which ever comes first). There was a time where travel promised unbridled joy and freedom to me. Now, it promises discomfort, mind-numbing boredom and bitter, gut-wrenching sameness.
Geologist James Hutton once described the Earth as having “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” He could have been easily describing Northern Illinois or Southern Indiana or Western New Jersey. There is no America per se. There are stores, there are signs, there are cars. If you take away the accents, there isn’t much to distinguish Alabama from Pennsylvania. The seasoned traveler can tell where they are by when the Waffle Houses stop and the Perkinses begin. Otherwise, it is one endless slog of chain restaurants, rock quarries and churches stretching on without origin or conclusion.
When you done the Death March long enough you start to become enamored of the bizarre similarities. Every rest stop in the entire state of Ohio looks exactly like the next one, right down to the distance from the “throw a quarter in and see your weight machine and lottery numbers” machine to the pile of 7 dollar and 99 cent grinning stuffed animals. All showerheads at Holiday Inns are exactly alike. The identical picture of a sailboat in the sunset has been in every hotel room I’ve been in since I was 27. A Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzard in Tupelo, Mississippi is a Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzard in Flagstaff, Arizona. There are no surprises awaiting the weary traveler.
It’s not that I’m against standardization. I know I probably shouldn’t admit to this in writing, but I find it comforting to know that I can find certain products that I like everywhere I go. My blood is probably 15 percent Diet Pepsi.
I don’t really want to tear down the strip malls and replace them with workshops run by friendly, well-mannered artisans. I really don’t need every town to look like Asheville, North Carolina. Truth be told, the Stepford Zombie Nightmare that our nation has become is probably the only world in which I’d know how to navigate.
What I am finding about myself is that the part of me that was once capable of romanticizing the American Road has long since died. I am not capable of finding beauty in this. Not anymore. It’s not America’s fault that it is so menacingly ugly; it is mine. I cannot make this anymore than what it appears to be. There is no poetry on these roads. Not once you’ve been down them a few times.