Thursday, June 26, 2014

Road Trip = Culture Shock

In 1960 John Steinbeck embarked on a trip across the United States in search of America.  As an American writer, writing about America, he felt he was only writing from memory and he know longer was familiar with the people of his country.  His adventure is chronicled in his 1962 book Travels with Charlie in Search of America.  With his beautiful use of language he describes a plastic wrapped nation, fed by homogeneous mediocracy, populated by political cowards, and a country side that is so defined by the drive for the next best model of X that the country side itself is invisible.
He noted one exception: Montana.  "It seemed to me that the frantic bustles of America was not in Montana....  that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives.  People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness."  
Fifty some years after Steinbeck's journey I wonder what he would see today.  What would he think of the interstate highway that allows you to see nothing, the ubiquitous chain stores and fast food restaurants, and the attention of individuals anchored to small screens held in the palms of their hands?  What would he say if he exited the interstate system in favor for old state highways and found nothing but empty shells of gas stations and houses as we did?
But, his description of Montana still holds true. In spite of that, this trip 'home' has brought an unexpected homesickness - a want to be close to family - but it has also been accompanied by an equal and perhaps greater amount of culture shock. 

  1. Lack of Public Land - True. This isn't really a shock, I have looked at the maps...  but, just as soon as we turned east, away from the Rocky Mountains our camping options became limited. 
  2. Fast Food Advertising - We crossed the Kansas state border and - BAMM - MacDonald. Arbys. ONE. AFTER. THE OTHER. Pizza Hut. Papa Johns. MacDonald.
  3. The size of American's back sides increases with the fast food advertising.  Really.
  4. Houses SPRAWL and are mostly roof.  The highway is lined by whole developments of black roofs that are identical to developments everywhere in middle America.  I watch the scenery roll by and wonder about the effects of all that black on micro climates, weather patterns and energy bills.
  5. The number of televisions in homes increases exponentially.  AND the televisions are on.  They have cable.  The last time we wanted to watch something on a television (the Olympics) it took us days to remember that we indeed did know someone with a television and more importantly, a television that received the proper channels.
  6. The number of books, children's books especially, read at bed time decreases.  I would be willing to bet it decreases equal to the amount of increase of previously mentioned television time.
  7. The perversion of dairy products.  I have coined this term to describe: a) NON-DAIRY COFFEE CREAMER.  Non-dairy coffee creamer is treated like a real food a gas stations, restaurants and in homes.  I quickly learned to look for or ask if the illusive half and half is available before pouring a cup of coffee. b) YOGURT.  It is hard to find a WHOLE MILK yogurt at the grocery store. Just a reminder: low fat milk is linked to weight gain in children.
  8. SODA.  people drink soda.  a lot of soda.
  9. no one walks.  ANYWHERE. 
  10. Driver's tailgate.  For all the space and sprawl of middle America, it's drivers are convinced that they are in the congested traffic of New York City.  They speed up behind you, swerve suddenly, swerve back in front of you and passing in the right lane is rampant.  Having driven through New York City numerous times, I much prefer the city traffic, because at last all that bumper to bumper, weaving out in and out of traffic mess is happening at less than 70 miles per hour. 

I wonder about the landscape and people.  The cycles of boom and bust that are at the very heart of its settlement.  The land runs.  The oil. The dust bowl. The housing bubbles. The natural gas.  The corn and wheat that grew fence row to fence row until there were no more fences left.  The giant corporate hog farms, chicken farms, commodity is everywhere. One giant cross road; a way through to somewhere else: North, South, East, West. The landscape is devoid of the agricultural communities that should be rooted in the deep, fertile top soil. 
John Steinbeck and I are traveling in opposite directions.  As I read the pages he is moving west and I am moving east.  As he reaches the shores of the Pacific I reach into the thicket of brambles and pick black berries in the dense shade of the eastern deciduous forest. 

What America will I find here?


  1. I so remember reading, and re-reading, Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charlie'. Larry and I were talking about the small towns here as we drove the back roads back to Stillwater from Bartlesville. Actually, when we were trying to find the location of my high school reunion, he said he's seen the prettiest places he'd ever seen around Bartlesville...Ochelata that he didn't even know existed, hills, and some dense, dense woods. And on the way back, I was talking about the sprawl of Bartlesville...and Tulsa...and Oklahoma City...We drove through Cleveland and Larry said something about how, didn't it seem to me, too, that it just keeps "going downhill"? Yes, it does. More and more businesses shuttering, more houses standing empty, more lack of services. Hominy, Wynona, was Pershing ever a town, Jennings, Hallett....Where do the people go? I fear even only the fairly lucky manage one of those black-roofed houses that is cookie-cutter stamped in some suburb. I think I'll go and hug my Sand Plums and Blackberries, my two little apple trees...

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