Friday, October 15, 2004

Variety and Homogeneity

With this year's Feast of Tabernacles in Mesquite, Texas, we here in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area had to drive across more than a thousand miles of the Southeast to "go up to the Feast." My family made this trip over three easy days of driving down I-20, with motel stops in Birmingham, Alabama, and Monroe, Louisiana, along the way. We were able to spend a few hours of one afternoon in Vicksburg, Mississippi, taking an auto tour of the Civil War battlefield there and visiting the original Coca-Cola bottling plant.

The ten days we spent in the Dallas area centered on a few-mile strip of I-635 that crosses Mesquite and Garland. A few exits north of the hotel stood the Town East Mall and a bevy of restaurants and stores that beckoned us to unload some of our second tithe on them. This we dutifully did, spiking Mesquite's retail sales figures for October. The city fathers were probably sad to see us leave after the Last Great Day.

The way home also covered parts of three days of travel. We headed east from Mesquite in the late morning on Friday, determined to make it to Meridian, Mississippi, before the sun set. Despite the drenching downpours of Tropical Storm Matthew as we slogged across Louisiana and Mississippi, we pulled into our hotel with a half-hour to spare. The next day, we drove up to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Sabbath services, where forty people attended, and afterward, we ate dinner just east of Birmingham. Deciding to press on, we made it to Atlanta, Georgia, and found a motel to stay in near the airport. Sunday's drive back to Charlotte was relatively easy and routine, and we arrived back home by mid-afternoon, tired but relieved.

This travelogue of our Feast trip is typical of what we have experienced for the last several years, whether our destination has been San Antonio, Texas; Jefferson City, Missouri; or Topeka, Kansas. The scenery varied a little as our routes have differed, and the local accents of Texas and Missouri confirmed we had arrived in different places. Yet, for all the variety we saw on the surface, each place might have been the same.

We saw this the most in the stores, motels, restaurants, and gas stations that lined our route. One could choose just about any city interchange along the way and find the same chains doing business. Need fuel? There are only a handful of gasoline dispensing companies, and each had its store close to the off ramp. Hungry? One need not drive far off the freeway to find a Cracker Barrel, Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, or O'Charley's—not to mention McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC. Need to stop and rest? There is bound to be a Comfort Inn, Days Inn, La Quinta, Red Roof Inn, Motel 6, Best Western, or Hampton Inn at the next exit. Left something at home? One can always replace it at Wal-Mart, Target, or K-mart—or one can check all three for the best price. It was pretty near impossible to find a local, non-chain, Mom-and-Pop store or inn anywhere.

This, of course, is a bit exaggerated, but after a few weeks of driving, this is the impression a traveler has. Wherever one goes across this huge land we call the United States of America, one can enjoy the same, comforting establishments he frequents at home. The hash brown casserole or the meatloaf at the Cracker Barrel tastes the same in Rock Hill, South Carolina, as it does in Columbia, Missouri. The Wal-Mart in Paducah, Kentucky, carries the same products as the one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the one in south Charlotte. One can expect a similar room and services at every La Quinta anywhere in the nation.

We have learned that Americans yearn for variety and seek it out at every turn, but we are a schizophrenic people, desiring the comforts of homogeneity at the same time. We want variety, but we also want consistency within it. To this end, we have nearly eradicated every cultural and regional difference across the fruited plain. These provincial distinctions have been relegated to gaudy, overdone tourist traps where visitors receive stilted caricatures of a once-proud traditional lifestyle. With a few rare exceptions, the South looks like the Northwest looks like the Northeast looks like the Mid-West looks like the Southwest.

There is probably nothing wrong with this homogenization, especially if it promotes national unity, although that does not seem to be the case. It was probably inevitable that it would happen at some point. Nevertheless, it is sad to observe the passing of these old, nostalgic regional traditions into a bland sameness. So much for diversity.