A few weeks ago I went on a road trip. My wife and I drove from our home in North Carolina to Minneapolis, Minnesota for a wedding. A smart man may have flown, but that man was probably not transporting kegs of beer to serve at said wedding. During this trip, we went across an amazing array of American countryside.
The trip spanned North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and finally, Minnesota and it struck me again - as it did when we drove across the country about a decade back - just how vast and variable our country is. To put it simply, it is amazing and majestic.
From North Carolina driving north into West Virginia we drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains, these beautiful verdant green, sheer-drop landscapes. It feels as though the forest is soaring over your head and flowing under your feet as you bend through the roadways there.
Out of West Virginia, following the Ohio River Valley west through Kentucky is similar, but vastly different. The sharp, steep slopes that make up the valley itself give way to rolling fields and horse farms - old wooden fences, leading to newly painted barns with rolls of hay precariously perched on hillsides.
Ohio brought us through Cincinnati and Dayton, thriving metropolises spilling out of the Ohio River Valley and creeping toward the long, endless fields of corn in Indiana. In Central Indiana there is a wind farm with graceful whirling turbines that spread over the corn for as far as the eye can see. At night, all of the lights at the top of each tower blink in unison, looking like some sort of enormous alien landing strip.
Next was the seeping sprawl of Chicago, its combination of 19th Century and modern architecture; its tight city streets and miles and miles and miles and miles of suburbs, all leaning toward the sparkling jewel of a lake that its skyline is set against.
Wisconsin brought us back to rolling hills and farmland: fields of barley spread out in between bluffs and glacier-carved hillsides dotted with bright wildflowers in bloom. Finally Minneapolis and St. Paul found its way into our view, neatly in sight of each other, cities rising out of the plain, giving the Mississippi a little push toward the vast southern expanses it still has to cross.
While we were traveling, I enjoyed looking at people's faces in restaurants and gas stations, in rest areas and bars. People say that America is a melting pot, but we're really more like a tossed salad. We're not blended together. You can see the great American immigration of the 19th Century written across the people of every region. Americans move around a fair amount, but a huge part of the population stays put, raises their family next door to their parents and their kids do the same. We have pockets of Polish, British, German, Swedes, Dutch, Italian, Irish, French, and a vast array of African, Arab, and Asian countries dabbed across the middle of our country. You can see it in the way people's faces are set, in the way they smile, in the way they speak. No matter what you do, a big part of you is still your grandparents.
It was a beautiful, amazing trip. And yet through all of it I found myself exasperated and frustrated at what I saw: The awful, awful sameness. McDonalds, Burger King, Applebee's, Wendy's, Arby's, Taco Bell, KFC, Denny's, IHOP, Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's, blah, blah, blah, etcetera, and anon. The list can go on and on and on and on and ON. I don't have to name them all, you know them. All you have to do is look around every strip mall you drive by.
Not long ago, this country had variable culture. Where immigrants settled, they built communities and filled it with the culture of their homeland. They came for prosperity and new beginnings, but built their own comfortable space. It meant that no matter where you went in the country you could find something different that grew out of its local inhabitants past whether it be food or music, a street festival, or a religious ceremony.
Now, we have same. We have the bulk of our culture franchised and mass-produced. We have our restaurants and our stores, our clothing, music, furniture, building materials, and even the most miniscule of household goods spread uniformly across this country like a veneer. The individuality of our communities has become white-washed in the name of convenience.
My guess is that this sameness arose from the end of the Great Depression and World Wars. America was thriving. It was the center of technological innovation and manufacturing. It had money and power, but it craved, above all things, stability. Just a generation back, young adults had - as children - seen their parents suffer through the Depression. No work and no food. Farmers were driven off of their land by drought and workers were sent home from shuttered factories.
Sameness feels like stability. They theory behind sameness is sound: No matter where you go, you want to be able to go into a restaurant and get the exact same quality food you would get where you normally are. A McDonald's in Southern California serves you the same shitty cheeseburger is does in Northern Maine. Sameness is stable.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, we lost sight of two really important things.
The first is that that cheeseburger is shitty. You can't have the exact same cheeseburger 5,000 miles apart unless you make them all in a few central locations and ship them out. You can't sell them in your remote locations unless you ship them, and you can't sell them for cheap unless you cut the cost of that shipping by replacing good ingredients with cheap ones. The same is true for every large franchise in the country, regardless of whether it's a 99 cent shitty "cheeseburger" at McDonalds, a $7.99 cut of "steak" at Applebee's, or a $0.30 pipe fitting at Home Depot. Our societal quest for sameness and consistency has left us holding the bag on quality. We no longer expect well-made products, we expect consistent ones. It is a detriment to our society and our consumerism.
The other is that there's a lot of joy to be found in variety. We've lost the ability to celebrate our differences. We're so caught up in sameness that our differences are starting to feel like a liability. We see it in our culture and we see it in our politics, and I am positive that it all stems from the overarching sameness that is pressed over our country by decades of franchising every part of our society.
Fortunately, differences still live on in small pockets. They live in your grandmother's cookbook and the recipes that come out every year for family gatherings. They live on locked away inside people's living rooms and kitchen chats. Most importantly, they live on in small pockets of local music, small farms, and ethnic communities - white, black, brown, purple, or whatever.
Please, take the time to celebrate differences - but not your own. Celebrate someone else's. The different cultures that we have in this amazing, beautiful country, are what makes it so glorious. Take the time to savor the cultures around you and enjoy them. Enjoy their food and their music.. Take the time to learn why different people do things in different ways. Why they go to church on Saturdays or fast during daylight hours for a month per year. Find out why they're different than you, and embrace that difference. Same might be safe and easy, but same is boring. Different is complex, different is difficult, but different is beautiful and exciting and everybody - every single person - has it. You just have to appreciate it.
When our cultural landscape resembles the grandeur that nature has given us across this country and we love them both equally, we truly will be the greatest country in the world.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.24.11 @ 9:04a
Yes. Yes yes yes.
8.24.11 @ 11:10a
Everything you said and more.
8.24.11 @ 1:50p
A beautiful read. Thank you!
katherine (aka clevertitania)
8.25.11 @ 12:42a
I can absolutely see your points. But, as a creature of habit, I feel differently.
I like that a kind of low-carb bread, that my local Wal-Mart carries will probably be in the store by my family in Florida, when I go to visit. I like that I can get my son's pills at ANY Walgreens, and that the calorie count in a Wendy's burger in Illinois is the same as in Iowa.
Just because cuisine is local doesn't guarantee it's healthier; we fry A LOT of crap in IL/IA.
But I know I'm the weird one. :)
8.25.11 @ 10:44a
Well.. it's not about health, it's about quality of life. :)
As an aside, have you ever stopped to think about the concept of low-carb bread? Bread is made out of carbohydrates. I mean.. aside from a little bit of protein there's really not much else in there.
katherine (aka clevertitania)
8.29.11 @ 9:33p
Fair point, but then without things like low-carb bread & low-carb tortillas, I wouldn't have put my diabetes into full remission in less than 3 years. When you have to manage unusual medical/dietary issues, such as gluten allergies, you appreciate a store like Wal-Mart or Super Target, so you know you can find what YOU need to eat - for YOUR body - anywhere.
And my earlier point was, your idea of quality of life is not necessarily the same as everyone else's. For instance I hate road trips. :)