Oh the Mediocrity! Driving America by Interstate

We are wending our way home from a vacation in Chicago, traveling I-70 east from Columbus, Ohio. Overall, Chicago was a good destination for a vacation. Nevertheless, having done Montreal and Toronto during our last vacation, Portland and Denver on recent business trips and New York City many times I am citied out. On my next vacation, I want a few weeks far from civilization.

Nonetheless, if you have to visit a huge American city and have deep pockets then Chicago is a terrific destination. It has the virtues of New York without most of its downsides — like the hellish 24/7 noise, the incessant congestion, the filth and the rats. (I am speaking only of downtown Chicago. The rest of the city, from our views of it, was far less enamoring.) While in Chicago, we saw terrific museums and took in two musicals. The more memorable one was the touring version of the new Broadway hit musical Wicked. The other was an irreverent but very funny Second City musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Aside from four nights in Chicago, we spent three nights in the Ohio suburbs. Each stop was convenient to traveling and the people we were visiting. Our overnights were in Maumee (a convenient rest stop south of Toledo), Springfield (a suburb on the north side of Cincinnati) and Dublin (on the periphery of Columbus).

I am afraid that the driving part of our vacation left a lot to be desired. It also left me sad and more than a bit nostalgic. Driving used to be an adventure. Now driving across America is a bland, frustrating and sometimes abrasive experience. I should wax poetic at the marvel at our interstate system. Undeniably, it is overall a convenient and usually quick way to zip across the country by automobile. Our transportation infrastructure, even if often congested, is still a marvel that is reached neither in size nor in scale by any other country. However, driving the interstates today, at least here in the Midwest, struck me as a sad and extended experience in the mediocrity and homogenization of modern America.

You can get a feel for the values of a state by traversing their toll roads. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you feel doubly squeezed: by the often-narrow road and the high cost per mile for the toll. Pennsylvania goes for minimalist rest stops that are often crowded and dirty. Getting back on the toll road may mean putting the pedal to the metal because the merge lanes do not last long. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has greatly improved their turnpike. While it can be considered fair at best, it used to be downright poor. The surrounding scenery helps to make up for road itself.

The Ohio Turnpike has both the best rest stops and the best-maintained toll roads. We travelers actually feel welcomed on their turnpike. Admittedly, large stretches of it may be flat and boring. At least much of their turnpike is three lanes in each direction, so you do not feel like you are going to be scraped by a passing vehicle like you do in Pennsylvania. While Ohio’s tolls are not cheap, you feel like you got your money’s worth. Their rest stops are attractive to the eye. They offer a variety of restaurants that are well maintained and uniformly clean. The gas prices on the turnpike plazas reflect street prices off the pike. The good citizens of Ohio have decided that travelers should not endure either a second-class road or second-class services on its toll roads. I appreciate these kinds of values. Perhaps I will retire in Ohio.

Contrast this with traveling on the Indiana Turnpike. In Indiana, you get the feeling the state just wants your dough, and as much of it as they can get for the least amount of money. The road quality quickly degrades. Unfortunately Indiana, as experienced from its interstates, does not speak well of the state. If I were to judge the state by what I saw along its interstates, Indiana would rank near the bottom of desirable states to live. The values of Indiana seem to be large annoying billboards, cheap fireworks, adult superstores, strip joints, casino gambling and, oh, religion too. Go figure. There is not much of anything bucolic to see on their turnpike other than cornfields. As you pass through Gary, you may have to roll up your windows to avoid the chemical stench. In short, from the interstate Indiana gives the impression it is a state full of trailer park trash values. If this red state is an example of Republican utopia, Republicans are welcome to it. If I were in charge of promoting Indiana, I would be thinking about making some major changes.

Venture off the interstate in Indiana to buy gas and it becomes impossible to distinguish one place from another. It soon all runs together: garish billboards, large signs for restaurants and hotels hoisted hundreds of feet in the air, neon lights, harsh industrial lighting, and the ubiquitous but deafening drone of accelerating trucks. Alas, in this respect Indiana is like most other states. Junk food is cheap and plentiful, which may explain the girth of the people I encountered. Unless you are close to a city, trying to find a place to purchase something resembling healthy food off Indiana interstates is a largely a pointless endeavor. You had better be hungry for McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell or KFC if you are traveling through Indiana. If you are lucky, the exit may have a Subway.

While there are still many cornfields in Indiana and Ohio, it increasingly feels like the cities are encroaching on each other. (Cincinnati and Columbus are good examples.) Each place where we stopped overnight seemed indistinguishable from the others. The nearby restaurants and theater chains were largely the same that we have at home. There was nothing particularly memorable about Maumee, Springdale or Dublin. They offer bland uniformity and convenience for the traveler, but not one thing that will make you turn your head. You would think they would be cleverer at marketing. Those who drive I-95 to and from Florida certainly know about South of the Border.

We found the truck traffic on the interstates to be often overwhelming. I have to assume that the railroads are having a hard time attracting customers. It seems that all of our freight is now moving by truck. We recreational drivers spend much of our time jockeying around the voluminous single, double and even triple trailer trucks. Between the laboring trucks and the heightened volume of the summer traffic, we found that the cruise control had little value.

Perhaps things are different in Europe. If we were to vacation there, as we hope to at some point, perhaps every place where we stop will feel different, look different and have a unique character. However, the more I travel the United States, the more homogenous it feels. It feels particularly this way when I travel it by car. Perhaps these are simply expressions of our deepest values. Perhaps we are truly one United States now in fact. From our highways, the evidence seems overwhelming. It seems that in America we want our travel experience to be like our fast food: familiar, mediocre and predictable.

The late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt used to travel the highways and byways of America. In every community, he seemed to find a unique culture or story. Maybe that is still the case. You probably will not find it along America’s interstates. They are best breezed through and forgotten.

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