(Philanthropist painting by Nolan Winkler)
“If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.” Bob Troup
As I peruse the many articles decrying the ruination of towns and independent businesses by big box stores such as Walmart, and I read about Ukiah groveling at the feet of Costco and wasting millions of precious dollars to bring that destructive horror show to town, I recall that the largest assault on the remarkably diverse and egalitarian America of the 1960’s (egalitarian compared to America in 2013) was the construction of the Interstate Highway System, without which many of the fast food restaurants and chain stores and big box stores of today, not to mention much of suburbia, would never have come into being.
A popular television show of my childhood (1960-1964) was Route 66, a weekly hour-long drama about two handsome young men driving around America on Route 66 and having adventures with all kinds of different kinds of people in small towns and big towns and cities connected by that particular ribbon of highway. What I remember most clearly about the show was that the two guys—Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buz Murdock—drove a groovy Corvette convertible through cornfields and deserts and towns accompanied by beautiful dreamy traveling music (composed by Nelson Riddle and performed by his dreamy orchestra.)
The actual Route 66 was a 2500-mile highway that existed from 1926 until 1985 and ran from Santa Monica California to Chicago Illinois connecting thousands of pre-existing towns and cities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois, most of those towns thriving as a result of the vastly increased commerce the highway brought them.
The Interstate Highway System, on the other hand, was designed to connect large population centers and bypass thousands of small and medium-sized towns, thus rendering them irrelevant to the larger economic forces driving the national and global economies. Many of those bypassed towns have since become ghost towns, while chain restaurants and motel chains and gas pumping stations (as opposed to service stations) have spread like cancers over our now freeway-crisscrossed land.
“President Eisenhower gave the nation its biggest construction project, the huge interstate-highway program that changed the shape of American society and made possible the expansion of the suburban middle class.” James M. Perry
Ah, the suburban middle class, as opposed to the rural or urban middle class. A friend of mine used to call the suburbs carburbia because living in the suburbs was virtually impossible without a car. Nowadays, I suppose, one could live in the suburbs, work and shop on the interweb, have everything delivered by UPS and not be totally dependent on automobiles, but if one could live that way why would one choose to live in an ugly culturally vapid suburb instead of in a groovy city or a splendiferous rural area? One probably wouldn’t.
“Our interstate highways make of America one gigantic assembly line of production.” Ellis Armstrong
I used to know a guy who drove a gigantic truck, the biggest truck allowable on the road, for a national chain of pizza parlors. He lived in eastern Kansas with his wife and three sons, but he was rarely home because the nature of his job was akin to being in the Merchant Marines. He would be away for two months at a stretch, home for two weeks, and then back out on the road for another two months, and so on. He truly worked on the “gigantic assembly line of production” for this pizza chain, and when he described his job to me I felt certain the world had gone mad.
He drove all over America, from California to Florida to Pennsylvania to Illinois to everywhere, picking up raw foodstuffs for assembling pizzas and salads and pasta dishes, as well as other supplies needed to stock a pizza parlor. He delivered these materials to a gigantic assembly plant somewhere in the middle of the country, and carried away from that plant hundreds of thousands of frozen pizzas and palettes of paper plates and napkins and salad mixes and soda pop and whatnot to be delivered to sub-stations around America from which smaller trucks would ferry the fixings to individual pizza parlors. And as my friend delivered the finished goods, so to speak, space would open up in his gigantic trailers and he would fill that space with more raw materials, and so on. Doesn’t it make you want to rush out and get a frozen pizza right now?
“Well! Evil to some is always good to others.” Jane Austen
I find it fascinating that so many Americans love going to Europe because so much of what used to be true about America is still true there. Small towns, little farms, ancient ways of life ongoing, cities with crooked streets, winding roads, trains going everywhere, all kinds of different kinds of people and ways of living existing side by side, so many people walking and riding bicycles and buying bread at local bakeries, every loaf unique. Lovely shops and bookstores and villages, herds of sheep in narrow lanes, donkeys braying, old picturesque churches, little museums and art galleries and fabulous food found in marvelous pubs and cafés and restaurants and inns, no two alike—richness and diversity!
Then these millions of Europe-adoring Americans come home and shop at big box stores and chains because why pay a dollar forty-nine for that can of tomato sauce at your neighborhood grocery store when you can get the same can of tomato sauce at Walmart for ninety-nine cents? Why pay fourteen dollars at your local bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing) for the same book you can get on Amazon for 30% less? Why pay more? Why shop at your local stationery store (if you’re lucky enough to have one) when the same-sized envelopes, well, shit, you can get five hundred of those same-sized envelopes at Office Depot or Staples for practically nothing.
And these Europe-loving folk never seem to make the connection between the way they buy things in Europe and what they love about Europe—variety, surprise, depth, small, unique, locally grown, fresh! Nor do they connect the way they buy things in America and what they hate about America—sameness, blandness, stale, shallow, plastic, made somewhere else. Why, I wonder, don’t these people, some of them my dear friends, make the connection between where we buy things and the ongoing ruination of America and the world? Perhaps because we have become so enslaved to convenience and the illusion of paying less for more, that to admit our actions are the cause of the problem and then change our behavior would be too painful for us, too inconvenient, too costly.
“This place is great! You should franchise this.” exuberant tourist overheard in Mendocino’s Good Life Café and Bakery
Mendocino, for example, is a popular tourist destination largely because there are no chain restaurants here, no big box stores, no fast food, no Starbucks or McDonald’s or Taco Bell adorning the bluffs overlooking the mighty Pacific. The houses and storefronts are old and quaint, relatively speaking, and to fully enjoy the town and discover her secret charms one must walk around. Imagine. The best way to experience the European feel of the few square blocks in not-really-very-much-here Mendocino is to leave the car behind and stretch those legs. What a concept! I actually think walking around, that act alone, is a big part of what people like about coming to Mendocino. Forced out of their perpetual sitting positions, they end up enjoying how good moving their extremities makes them feel.
“Paris!” countless people have said to me. “We walked everywhere! It was glorious.”
“England! They have trains and buses that go everywhere. So many wonderful villages and small towns and winding country roads. We walked our butts off. Glorious!”
“Holland! We walked and rode bicycles everywhere! And the cheese! The bread! Glorious!”
Ditto Sweden, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.
“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz
So the next time you pull into Trader Joe’s or Costco or Walmart or Staples or any of those places we go to save a few bucks, think about the Buddhist idea that we are the owners of our own karma, that we create our happiness and unhappiness through our actions and the choices we make, both as individuals and collectively. Then we might better understand that choosing to shop locally at one-of-a-kind stores is how we can help create a happier and more interesting reality right here at home.