The other day I was strolling through a local shopping center when I noticed a colorfully ragtag quartet of young travelers camped out in the little plaza outside a chain coffee store.
They were presumably hitchhiking across the country, their entourage complete with two friendly mutts and a couple of beat-up guitars. The whole bunch was in high spirits, although judging by their looks, they’d been on the road for a long, long time.
At first I was reminded of my own teenage travel adventures, when my friends and I had cheerfully slept on sidewalks or railway station floors, immune to the disapproving frowns of the locals.
But then I began to wonder how similar our experiences really were. The plaza these travelers occupied so happily was ringed by 100 percent corporate chain outlets, from the ubiquitous coffee bar to the familiar purveyor of ersatz tacos, to the giant home-improvement outlet, with its inevitable parade of customers driving off with screen doors tied to their roofs.
It was a place at once utterly familiar and utterly forgettable, without a single feature unique to this particular corner of America. Nowadays, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of ultra-generic locations — in fact, they’re becoming almost inescapable.
Hence, what these kids were experiencing — the simple exhilaration of travel notwithstanding — would have been pretty much the same whether they’d been in Portland, Maine; or Portland, Ore.; in Lansing, Mich.; or Laredo, Texas. Here they were, gloriously free and ready to take in the United States, yet for much of the time the places they went all looked the same.
Don’t get me wrong. America is a land of incomparable natural contrasts — of mountain, deserts and prairie, of oceans of water and oceans of wheat. Mother Nature has blessed us with plenty to see and this, one hopes, will never change.
Yet the places where we actually spend most of our time — the erstwhile charismatic cities, the formerly charming whistle-stop towns, and the increasingly vast stretches of bland, lookalike suburbs in between — have less and less to distinguish them as the years pass.
Our nation’s once culturally distinct landscapes are slowly congealing into a homogenized, study group-induced, corporate marketer’s idea of nirvana, in which one business plan conveniently fits all because every crossroads is interchangeable. Only the backlit plastic signs need their logos changed now and then.
History is cyclical, of course, and it may be that the insidious spread of global megabusiness is just a phase that will grow and then wither — and along with it, the bland, calculated, one-size-fits-all corporatization of America and the rest of the globe. Still, given today’s frenetic electronic linkage of everything and everyone — and the apparent glee with which young people experience it — we might just as likely be on a one-way trip to Blandville.
As I watched those four scruffy kids in the bloom of youth, strumming on their beat-up guitars, I felt a little sorry for them. They were traveling America, all right, but they were always ending up in the same place.