I’m staying home for a while. I just did the math and calculated that we put well over 5000 miles on the family car this summer. Yet despite meandering to places as distinctly different as Stowe, Vermont
and Jackson, Mississippi I continue to be amazed at how homogeneous the United States has become. We encountered strip malls and Burger Kings, ESPN and Coca-Cola, convenience stores and excessively frosty air conditioning everywhere we turned.
I have now been in 37 states plus the District of Columbia. While we were in Vicksburg, Mississippi we drove across the river into Louisiana, just so I could add it to my list. We took the first exit off the interstate and pulled into a gas station. Then I made everyone get out of the car. (My family thought I was crazy, but I have a rule that we cannot claim to have been in a state unless our feet actually touch the ground.) I pulled out the camcorder and filmed my family in the parking lot with my usual running commentary. “Well, here we are in Louisiana!”
“Look Dad, they have a Subway!”
“And a McDonald’s!”
As I surveyed the landscape, I noticed that they also had a liquor store, a billboard advertising a casino and an adult bookstore across the road. Except for the fact that it was 178 degrees in the shade, we could have been back home in Wisconsin, where we also have all those amenities.
My family traveled a lot when I was a child. I remember how each place we visited seemed unique and defined by its own distinct ambiance. Every spring we would drive from our home in Vermont to Pennsylvania, where my grandparents lived. When we arrived there, it was a perennial treat to munch on exotic foods like cheese steaks and soft pretzels (In Vermont, all the pretzels were hard). Now you can find soggy over-salted pretzels in any convenience store in America and try Subway for a piss-poor attempt at a cheese steak.
When I was a child, Pennsylvania was civil war battlefields and Amish country. Florida was palm trees and people with suntans. Maine was the rugged coast, lobsters and natives who referred to cars as “cahs.” This summer, I must have talked to half a dozen people in Oxford, Mississippi before I found someone with a decent southern accent. The man at the bookstore said he had just moved down from Boston.
As we traveled this summer, I thought of Macon Leary, the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s classic novel The Accidental Tourist. Macon writes travel guides for people who hate to travel. His books suggest activities to help weary travelers feel as though they never left home. That’s not so hard to accomplish, nowadays.
Choose any major city in America. Stay at the Comfort Inn or one of the various hotels from the Marriot chain. Head across the parking lot to dine at Olive Garden or Burger King. If you’re in the mood for something more “exotic,” try Taco Bell. Cross the busy highway and pick up a few supplies at Target or Walgreens. Return to your excessively frosty air-conditioned hotel room and pick your poison: CNN, ESPN, MTV. Before you go to bed, don’t forget to check your e-mail using the ubiquitous wireless. When you wake up in the morning and wonder where you are, know it’s Anywhere, USA and there’s a Starbucks around the corner.
I’m not complaining. There is something soothing about the fact that when you order a chicken Caesar salad at an Applebee’s in Fresno, California it will taste exactly like a chicken Caesar salad at the Applebee’s in Birch Run, Michigan. And I’m not sure why, but sometimes it’s comforting to know that wherever you roam, the nearest Wal-Mart is usually no more than an hour away.
Now it’s true that you can sometimes tell where you are because people have different names for things. In Wisconsin we call water fountains “bubblers.” And in Minnesota soda is “pop.” Those sandwiches they serve at Subway are called hoagies, torpedoes, subs, or grinders depending what part of the country you’re in. This summer I learned that in St. Louis they call Miller Genuine Draft “Budweiser.”
As I get older I may become more like Macon Leary, but for now I enjoy discovering those things that make each place unique. So this summer I strolled the grounds of Graceland in Memphis, drove to the summit of Mount Mansfield in Vermont, and traveled to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I ate grits in Arkansas and lefse in Minnesota (except for the texture they tasted remarkably similar).
Now that I’m back home I invite you to visit me here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’ll take you on the Miller brewery tour, show you the Fonzie statue and the shore of Lake Michigan, then throw some Usinger’s brats on the grill for supper while we cheer for the Green Bay Packers. And don’t worry. If you start to feel a bit homesick, there’s a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut just down the street.