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In literature, landscape is often symbolic of the character's interior life. As we drove the old highways through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, my attitude was a little acidic.
I tapped this note out on my computer on the evening of 6.19.06, after arriving at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The jury is out on whether this vacation is “accomplishing its purpose.” (Must vacations have any purpose except enjoyment or letting your mind go fallow for a time?) Are we “lost in America”? Are we seeing anything that we can’t see at home? The terrain is lovely, but the culture? “America” seems not only homogenized, but corporatized. I keep looking for the unique little diner, but all I see is the next McDonalds, the next Perkins. And they are so seductive with their reliable dose of deep-fried tastiness – no wonder all the local diners and cafes are boarded up. Reliability and predictability trumps adventure. So it isn’t just “them,” it’s the me they know so well.
I’m searching for the romance of... something that the Hank Williams songs remind me of. Warm summer days, wood that needs painting, life strewn on lawns, some evidence of people following their passions. But everything is green. Tidy and prosperous. Roads are well paved and bloom suddenly into 4-lane highways. And yet the people who work at the fast-food places and hotels are mostly half-witted, unnerved by their own systems. Instead of learning a skill, they are learning to punch the meaningless buttons that deliver meaningless messages they repeat to impatient customers.
Maybe I just didn’t plan the trip right. We are skimming the surface. Best part is in the car, driving on small roads through farms and woodlands. I’d say villages, but I can’t say we’ve seen many. There are collections of chain stores and restaurants at crossroads. At smaller nodes, you find a tractor place and a national-brand gas station with a convenience store. Very rare to find clusters of old brick/stone residences, a post office, Main St, First St, Church St, etc – sometimes a vestige of them remains in the “old town” portions of the corporate kudzu. People aren’t interested in being quaint.
When I think it through, I can understand why a Dunkin Donuts is more profitable than Aunt Bee's Cozy Corner, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. I also understand that it's my own restlessness that finds brand-name America so disappointing. I want something to ignite my imagination and put me in touch with The Other. But okay, let's stop at that Bob Evans first. I force myself to ask: is it only boring people who get bored?
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