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.

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in your parents' '57 Chevy, you might well find that the little souvenir stand on your favorite ribbon of highway has been replaced by a mall.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.

The trend may be neither new nor significantly different from previous years. What seems more compelling is what has been elbowed aside in the process.

Enamored by one mom-and-pop restaurant/inn on our first night in Perrysville, Del., the Douglass Motor Inn, where Helen and Jones Douglass have given personal attention to travelers for over 50 years, we endeavored to search out family-run establishments the rest of the way. We never saw another one from Baltimore to Los Angeles.

The most obvious regional differences in food are differences in the appearance of food chains. Krystal's Hamburgers, Popeye's Fried Chicken, and a greater variety of taco stands begin to appear in the Southern states. Pull over in your car after penetrating the city limits of many a town, and ask some locals where to get a real good taste of regional food, and you get a lot of blank stares.

That excludes Louisiana, where Cajun and Creole restaurants abound -- and some stretches of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, where Mexican and New Mexican cuisines and good ol' American steak houses thrive.

Again, with deference to William Least Heat Moon (whose bestseller, ``Blue Highways,'' chronicled America from the back roads) and Charles Kuralt (whose CBS broadcasts celebrate the diversity of off-the-beaten-path America), this is how it looks from the main roads.

The biggest general change-of-scene from east to west is, beginning somewhere around Texas, space.

Says Mr. Moon, who spent a year traveling back roads: ``The vast openness changes the roads, towns, houses, farms, crops, machinery, politics, economics and, naturally, ways of thinking.''

Whether or not they reduce man's blindness to the immensity of the universe around him, as Moon avers, the wide open spaces do, out of an increasing sense of exile and unconnectedness, push him toward a greater reliance on himself, and toward a greater awareness of others and what they do. Even speeding across the Southwest, the distances do eat you up.

One last comment: Read America's regional newspapers to be reminded that news affects real people there. Mrs. Greene at 415 Main Street, for instance, whose shoestore will be closing after 50 years because of competition by a national franchise. School overcrowding, farmers in crisis, and interest rates all take effect there before the metropolitan newswriters piece events together and call it a trend. And you find the reason that so much of the ``significant'' news is generated in so-called large metropolitan news capitals: That's where the correspondents are stationed.

After a full trip of 350-mile days, gaining an hour, by the way, on three separate occasions as you move west, you can really appreciate the richness and diversity of Los Angeles -- in landscape, architecture, and activity.

Crossing the bottom of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert en route to Lotus Land, you see the ring of rust-colored smog hanging over the city like a pot lid, easily mistakable for a golden sunset by the uninitiated.

It's while looking out at the Pacific rather than the Atlantic that you realize that somewhere between ``Hahvid Yahd'' and Hollywood, the rules changed. Brownstones gave over to stilt houses, wingtips and Weejuns evolved into roller skates or thongs, and ``what's proper'' changed from table manners to jacuzzi etiquette. Where did it happen? Alabama, Texas, New Mexico?

Thus we found out: Those who cross America at high speeds are liable to miss it. Those who go in search of answers may come back with more questions:

Forget the Alamo, who are the Cajuns?

Who were the five civilized tribes and where are they now?

Was California once part of Mexico?

Why is Texas so big?

The answer to America is to keep going back, go slow, and be sure to take a guidebook.

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