I was behind the wheel every inch of 4800+ miles just now. Our itinerary went like this: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Illinois again, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana again, Illinois yet again, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico *sigh* again... and back to Arizona. Thats 14 states, more than one quarter of all that there are.
My general impression from this latest survey of the States of the Union was: Faded Glory. The rented Detroit
The whole place has the feel of consolidation. The bigger towns, in all their Chamber of Commerce glory, are thriving, with the brightest chains all clustered at the portages and landings on those long government built rivers, while the spaces in between seem to all be either emptying out or getting converted to Mini-Me's of the bigger burgs.
We got off those rivers when we could, when it could be justified under the tight deadlines of our three-destinations-in-one vacation schedule. We trekked though the dangerous wilderness where no blue and red shields pointed us in the right direction, where we were on our own to forage for food, gas, and "facilities", and where we were at the mercy of local cops from forgotten towns like Hereford, Texas or Rexford, Kansas, who apparently have even given up trying to generate revenue from strangers passing through just a little too fast.
Get off the interstates far enough, and away from any towns that know what developers are, and you see two things. First are those places just barely hanging on to any kind of cohesive town-ness, their economies trudging along only by virtue of a booming business in plywood and board-up services, and those towns desperately shilling for a slice of the good life and the promise of a Taco Bell if they can just get a few hundred more people to stay there long enough to be counted in the next census, or at least the next hotel industry survey.
Their main methods of doing so seem to be contrived festivals or historic notoriety, and half-heartely integrated marketing aimed at extolling the virtues of their 17 "fine" hotels and inns, the new movie theater, and the 1974 state softball championship high-school. They're all celebrating 85 Years of Progress, or promising a Bright Future, either approach sending a clear message that their best days are behind them if they don't do something in a big hurry.
That's not all that different than what small towns have always done, but it's different now, and that difference can be felt. I've been driving all over this country for 25 years, and maybe I'm just jaded, but now it feels, I don't know, less energetic than it used to be. Before we had Burma Shave and the World's Biggest Ball of Twine and the Mystery House, and The Thing. We had individuals and entrepreneurs shooting for the stars and sometimes taking their sleepy little towns with them. We had towns where people liked to live, liked to go down to the A&W on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning, and it showed.
Now we have desperate little towns where people live because they can't save up enough money to move out - or just figure there's nowhere to move to anymore - towns with far too energetically busy councilmen and assorted busybodies taking it upon themselves to shoot for a slightly classier level of mediocrity, and hoping the owner of some moderately large Ball of Twine will see an opportunity and move there so the town can tax him to death.
So long as he moves to a properly zoned parcel, that is. Wouldn't want all that string and all those Winnebagoes ruining the view from that land they've set aside for the new environmentally friendly industrial campus, or bringing down the property values of the surrounding farmland with their proletariat common-man appeal. That's not what a town with a Bright Future is all about, after all.
That's what it's all about now, even in the major cities, though it's not as apparent there. Except maybe in Detroit where I was earlier in the week. Aside from the general post-apocolyptic look of the joint, they no longer have 4th of July or Independence Day fireworks - they have "Freedom Day" fireworks, this year on June 23rd. There's no spontaneity, there's only that which is either planned or approved (and a kind of freedom that in Newspeak is carefully distinguished from independence). There's no room for it. I don't mean physical room, there's still more of that than could ever be filled, even in another seven generations of raping Mother Earth and depleting her natural resources. I mean breathing room. There's no room for taking chances anymore, for trying something to see if it works, or just because it's fun and makes some farmer enough money to take his wife into the big city once a year to see all the lights and all the shopping.
The margins are too small. The Rotarian Kleptocrats and the planners and the busybodies take the biggest cut of that margin, leaving only what they think is "enough" for the one who takes all the chances. And that's if they like you. They plan and approve and make sure that you don't take any chances that don't fit their comprehensive five-year vision and risk your status of a member in good standing of the community Tax Base. There's only room for sure things anymore, and the sure thing is usually the thing the other guy just did. And sure things live mostly in the cities now, or those small but becoming medium-sized towns that got over the hump of getting Wendy's and Best Western and Chevron to fund their truck bypass.
So the spaces in between are emptying out, or at least not getting much bigger and better. They're not where it's at anymore, those places like where all the cities and towns big enough to be printed on the map in bold lettering started out. There's no more "starting out" and growing because people like living there and building things from scratch, there's only managing what is already there, and growing because you're already big enough to grow, and not wither on the vine of State Route 123 or County Road "A".
Road trips ain't what they used to be. Now there's mostly destinations and "drive by" country and food-gas-lodging next exit. Getting there might still be half the fun, but only because where you get to isn't much fun anymore either.