There Is No There There

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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  1. #1 by John Erickson on June 9, 2011 - 10:17 PM

    Dude, you need to get off the Interstates! Grab a secondary road, avoid the tawdry old “Lincoln Highway” that is now all tourist traps, and go through some towns as small as the one I live in (we don’t even have a crossroad!). The farther off the beaten track, the better. Then, like my wife and I, you can pull into a little place in eastern Indiana, less than a day’s drive from home, tell ’em you’re from Chicago, and have them look at you like you just got out of your flaming chariot drawn by two fiery Pegasuses (Pegasi?). And best of all, saunter around the town like it’s all old hat to you. I will guarantee you will gather an entire following of slack-jawed yokels, who will follow you into the local restaurant and gaze at you in wonder as you relate stories of taking Hollywood stars (or better yet, Brit TV stars) to the top of Sears Tower. (Seriously, been there, done that, and I do actually have the T-shirt!)
    By the by, it works even better in Canada. Pull into the wonderful but deteriorating town of Hamilton, Ontario, and tell them you drove all the way from Chicago JUST to see their local regiment’s museum. I was actually taken to lunch by WW2 Canadian vets! These guys fought for our freedom (well, Canada’s, anyway), and they were honoured to treat ME to lunch! 😀

  2. #2 by Keith Spillett on June 9, 2011 - 11:28 PM

    I need to try that! Mostly, people just look at me like I’m the 4 millionth person to ask how far we are from Pittsburgh. You seem to have figured this traveling thing much better than I have.

    • #3 by John Erickson on June 10, 2011 - 9:04 AM

      The wife and I did a lot of backwoods driving, due in no small part to our World War 2 re-enacting, as well as the fact that we have family in South Bend and had friends that used to live in Lansing, so a straight shot north or south on Michigan 60 – a REAL back woods drive! I also tended to wander when I was on my sci-fi con kick in the late 80s. The worst was when I was in Atlanta, trying to get to Columbus, Georgia, took the wrong detour route, and pulled up to 2 Army guys with M-16s leveled at me! Managed to find Fort Benning by accident! 😀 Fortunately, this was pre 9/11, and I can talk VERY fast and respectfully, so I was simply shooed without too much hassle. Fun! NOT!!

      • #4 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 9:44 AM

        Your lucky you didn’t have the goat with you. They would have been confused and probably arrested you on the spot. People don’t take kindly to the illegal transport of farm animals in my neck of the woods.

      • #5 by John Erickson on June 10, 2011 - 9:58 AM

        Blackjack isn’t ours, he belongs to a neighbor who lets us borrow him to keep the back part of our lot mowed. Closest we ever came to owning livestock (other than dogs and cats) was the sheep we took care of for a couple weeks, that belonged to our Lansing friends. We were in the heart of Chicago suburban tract-housing at the time. Needless to say, we were QUITE the topic of conversation in the town!

  3. #6 by Joe Linker on June 10, 2011 - 12:12 AM

    Back roads to far places is a good idea, but we still will probably have lived in the Age of the Auto. Is that the age we asked for? “Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six.”

    • #7 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 9:42 AM

      Seems like it is. Be careful what you wish for, eh.

  4. #8 by MichaelEdits on June 10, 2011 - 12:34 AM

    I left 12 years ago and am returning in about 3 months. Thanks for letting me know nothing has changed.

    • #9 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 9:41 AM

      Well, Walmart sells hats now. That’s a big change. Beyond that, don’t expect too much new. Are you coming back for good?

  5. #10 by danny on June 10, 2011 - 2:16 AM

    during my family’s annual 8 hour drive to the beach every summer there is only one stop that matters… Mamie’s drive-in, in Laurel hill, N.C. for the chili/coleslaw burgers.. all other restaurants/scenic views/insane billboards are to be shunned.

    • #11 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 9:40 AM

      I will try to find that when we are on the Southern leg in August and heading home. Anything to make the drive more interesting!

  6. #12 by afrankangle on June 10, 2011 - 6:51 AM

    First, I agree with your point. I always saw the Main Street USA has Home Depot, McDonalds, Applebees, Wal Mart, Staples, Holiday Inn, etc …. In others words, there is a collection of stores that we find everywhere.

    On the other hand, John brings up a good point. Of course off-the-interstate travel will lengthen your trip – but there are benefits – the restaurants where the locals eat, the old-style hardware store, the local dairy whip, and so on.

    Nonetheless, seems you had a safe trip.

    • #13 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 9:39 AM

      Once the kids are older, I’m going to give that a shot. Having a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old in tow make getting their quickly all the more important. I’d really like to do this trip differently next time.

  7. #14 by Jim Wheeler on June 10, 2011 - 9:42 AM

    Nice post, and well-written, Keith. You motivate me to do a similar one on my blog. Thanks.

    Jim

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