America's diversity, at eye level. Driving across the US, a correspondent notes 20 years of change
Cheaper gasoline was a big inducement for many American motorists to rediscover America this summer. Faced with a change in assignment from Boston to Los Angeles, correspondent Dan Wood was caught up in his own rediscovery of it, electing to traverse the country by car rather than plane. Here are some of his impressions. Riding the nation's highways isn't what it used to be. Sure, ``Burma Shave'' signs are gone, though ``Stuckey's'' is still there. You already know about the family farm.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1986, a journey across America is still a journey of toll booths and cloverleafs, glittering cityscapes, and franchised food.
It is still towering woodlands, amber prairies, and majestic mountains, punctuated with moccasin shops and signs hawking saltwater taffy. It is still a journey of squinting between billboards for three-letter signs (GAS, OIL, EAT) and destination-markers (Myrtle Beach, next left).
But experienced at eye level rather than from 30,000 feet for the first time in 20 years, a trip across America is mostly a trip of spontaneous discovery -- the smell of a Louisiana bayou, the sizzle of a Santa Fe sidewalk. It is also, alas, laced with an unavoidable clich'e: America, the land of urban sprawl. (Yes, Joni Mitchell, ``They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.'')
If there is one observation that dominates all others, it is the arrival -- everywhere -- of the mall.
If the last time you crossed America was in your parents' '57 Chevy, you might well find that the little souvenir stand on your favorite ribbon of highway has been replaced by a mall.
You can read William Kowinski's ``The Malling of America'' to get the statistics. There are more shopping centers in the United States than movie theaters, more enclosed malls than cities, four-year colleges, or television stations -- and nearly as many malls as county courthouses. But even the malls have their regional trappings: conservative in Boston, large in Texas, funky in California.
Though you may inhale America in one breath, you exhale awed descriptions of size, shape, and diversity. We saw the lights of the Eastern Seaboard dim into backroad forests across the rural south. Stark plains of ice-covered sagebrush and sienna-hued buttes across the southwest give way to sandy desert in Death Valley then feather-duster palm trees and orange groves in southern California.
It's no brilliant observation that accents, attitudes, and language usage change, too. It's fun to see it happen in one fell swoop. ``How do you do?'' (Boston), ``Howdy y'all'' (Alabama), ``Hey, Dude'' (Los Angeles). A 3,000-mile drive in 10 days, by virtue of speed and superficiality, does tend to reinforce regional stereotypes -- the boasting Texan, the flaky Californian. But by placing each in a broader context of others, you can see most stereotypes are exaggeratedly drawn composites.
That observation excludes Southern policemen. As I stepped off the curb to jaywalk in Dallas, a motorcyle cop zoomed into my path and impaled me with steely glare: ``Go down to the crosswalk!'' he said from behind mirrored aviator glasses. He didn't say, ``You in a heap o' trouble, boy,'' but he might as well have.
If accents and attitudes and landscape are regional, so are cars. Having left mittened-and-scarved Bostonians wrestling Christmas trees atop family station wagons, we saw the evergreens stuffed into Jeep Wagoneers, four-wheel drive Blazers, and Broncos across the West. In Beverly Hills, we saw the trees plopped into convertible Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces by people in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses beneath sunny, dry skies.
Next to malls on the list of the transcontinentally obvious is the proliferation of franchises: Wendy's, Burger King, Long John Silver's, Aamco, etc. For those Americans once bothered by their domination of the main strips leading in and out of every large city -- each strip a stultifying clone of the one before -- they can now contemplate the new, homogenized look as it engulfs smaller towns: Greenville, S.C., Tuscaloosa, Ala., Meridian, Miss.