Charles Kuralt, the longtime “On The Road” correspondent for CBS News, once observed that, “thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.”
Since Kuralt made that comment a generation ago, things have only gotten worse. Nowadays, instead of not seeing anything, we just see the same things over and over, no matter where we go. Although the interstate system crisscrosses some of the most splendidly varied landscape on the earth, it has also helped make traveling that landscape an experience of unparalleled monotony. It matters little whether you’re on the left coast or the right, on the Canadian border or in the Deep South: As long as you stay near the freeway, you could be anywhere or nowhere.
Kuralt traveled the United States at a time when the only truly ubiquitous national chain was McDonald’s. Today, however, you can take any suburban off-ramp in the country–whether you’re in Bangor or Barstow, Boise or Birmingham–and you’ll likely find an identical grouping of corporate-franchised mini-marts, fast-food joints, and chain motels. A bit further on you’ll come to the inevitable strip mall with its Wal-Mart, Subway, and Starbucks, all duded up in a false-front interpretation of the local architectural style: a fringe of red tile in California, a pediment in New England, or a few fake shutters down South.
What’s so bad about this? Nothing, if our aim is a totally homogenous nation in which every growing town–whether north, south, east, or west–looks exactly the same as its neighbor. This outcome would suit the corporate mega-chains just fine, since it’s much cheaper to parcel out the same stores, shops, and restaurants over and over, tossing in a few clichéd regional details to please the local planning department.
The pity is, you wouldn’t know what was lost unless you had seen what came before. Motor down what’s left of Highway 97 in Northern California, or Highway 1 along the New England coast, or the legendary Route 66 that once spanned Chicago to Santa Monica, and you can still get a vivid sense of what it was like before modern freeways. On your own time, you traverse a landscape reflecting America’s kaleidoscopic variety, each town unique in its geography, lifestyles, industry, food, and pastimes.
This colorful pageant of Americana is what the interstates and their environs deny us. In its place, we’re fed bland cultural pabulum for mile upon monotonous mile; a landscape strategized, formulated, and set in place by indifferent strangers in a far-off boardroom instead of by the locals in their own front rooms.
Granted, we’ve willingly submitted to such expedients. In a rapidly changing world, some of us probably find it reassuring that a Subway sandwich in Bangor tastes exactly like it does in Barstow. And let’s face it, many of us would rather go flashing down the interstate at 80 miles per hour rather than tooling through some backwater that, heaven forbid, might be lacking a Starbucks.
But in paring off those few minutes and miles, we’ve also doomed ourselves to miss that Hoagie, that Cheese Steak, that Spiedie, or that slab of Flint’s Barbecue; not to mention that clunky cup of MJB served by a waitress named Dot whose greeting comes from her own head instead of some corporate manual, and who reminds us that the real America is still out there, beyond the off-ramps and down the road apiece.
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