Editor’s note: In the spring of 2009, I had just recently returned from 4 months in Malawi, Africa, where I had been working at a refugee camp as a social worker. I had just broken up with my long-term boyfriend and was back in the states for a six week “vacation” that involved graduating from my master’s program at Boston College and moving everything I owned back to Northern California before returning to Malawi to continue my job near the country’s capital. It was a time in my life of great heartbreak but also enormous opportunity, like I had just been given a great big gift I didn’t even know was needed or even possible. Thanks for revisiting these growing pains and adventures with me.
So I had this whole panic attack last week about the over-abundance of choices in Boston and how the sheer number of alternatives for food, transportation, consumer products and life in general in the big city, sort of freaked me out and was causing me to tailspin a little. Ok, a LOT.
Well, as I have been reminded of in the last 24 hours, the phenomenon of options or variety is something that may very well be unique to metropolitan America. As I write, I am hanging out somewhere off of Interstate-80 in a little gem called Elyria, OH. This is the first official stop on the cross country road journey from Boston to Rosa (the first un-official check point was NYC yesterday but given that they have fancy beer and Chinatown, I am not sure it counts). The fascinating thing about this place, other than the fact that the Holiday Inn has free wirelessInternet and a functioning treadmill, is that I have actually been here before SEVEN YEARS earlier with Lindsay Buckles when the two of us drove a U-Haul from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco after we both graduated from college. I also have a distinct memory of why we got off at this exit — like yesterday, it was the end of a long day. It was getting dark. The prospect of driving all the way to our intended destination in Toledo looked grim and overwhelming. And thus, Elyria, OH and a meal at Bennigan’s beckoned.
The Bennigan’s is, unfortunately, now closed but everything else in this Interstate jewel of an exit is exactly the same. There are the token three hotels: The Holiday Inn, the Econo Lodge, and the Best Western. Likewise, there are your standard gas stations like Shell, BP and Chevron. And let’s not forget the all-American food choices — everything from McDonald’s and Taco Bell to a bitchin’ Red Lobster and middle America’s favorite, The Cracker Barrel. I haven’t even gotten to the “shopping” scene…WalMart. Oy.
So I think I have to take this moment to clarify and maybe even apologize for my last post — my feelings on being overwhelmed by the big city were indeed, truthful. Being in New York later that week was also pretty overstimulating. But I think those reactions and the sense of panic is applicable only to those remote bubbles of city life — being out in what will become an increasingly rural landscape after Chicago today is reminding me that the rest of this country isn’t “city”. It’s cookie-cutter America where you can count on a finite number of things being available to you when you pull off the highway. Hell, you can PREDICT with accuracy what will and will not be at your next stop just by looking down the interstate and guessing from the colors of the giant signs and billboards lining your way down consumerism alley. Ronald McDonald red does not mess around.
And you know what? I find some comfort in that predictability, which makes me a GIANT hypocrite based on what I was freaking out about last week. Although I am horrified by big business and the crushing effect it has on our small towns and developing countries beyond our borders, there is something sickeningly comforting about driving through four states and knowing that no matter where you are, you are capable of finding something familiar even if it is anApplebee’s or a drive-through Starbucks.
There is also this disturbing thought floating through my head that this is perhaps the structure I was craving last week while in Boston — predictability? The absence of surprises? The need for some sort of uniformity to set my head straight? I am really hoping that is not the case — I don’t think it is but I suspect there is a balance somewhere in between everything and I hope that equilibrium is to be found somewhere on the West Coast.
Still, I’m not gonna lie. I drove off that exit last night and I got a little nostalgic. Maybe it was the familiarity of a place I had been a long long time ago with a different person, at a different age. Maybe it was just the thrill of recognizing where I was. Or perhaps it was just the immense relief of pulling in somewhere and being totally anonymous in a familiar setting that hasn’t changed at all, even though I have. Whatever it was, it made me smile a bit while I drove around in awe of all those great big box stores and predictable fast food restaurants. And, yes, I am sort of disappointed in myself for embracing a lot of those things I typically hate, but I am also delighted to have wireless Internet and a king-sized bed with free cable and a mini-gym. I also just realized I don’t have any socks with me but GOOD NEWS!! There is a Target right around the corner.
So, that is the latest pontification from somewhere in semi-middle America. Other fleeting notes I have just in terms of this East/West roadtrip in comparison to the 2002 version? The roads are markedly worse — more construction and less smooth asphalt. Is that just in my head? I don’t recall having to stop so damn much. More food for thought: Cell phone coverage is only slightly more reliable — What the hell, Verizon? Finally, I think total gas cost is going to be about the same as it did when we drove a friggin’ U-Haul seven years ago which kind of chaps my ass a bit. I drive a Honda Civic and she sure as s**t doesn’t eat as much gas as that thing did. Bugger.
Anyway, the next stop is Chicago which I am sure I won’t have anything to complain about (sad for you guys) since I am staying in a beautiful house with my beautiful friend’s beautiful aunt and plan on going out to eat beautiful food and have beautiful drinks later tonight. I know you’re all immensely disappointed but fear not: There is nothing but big sky and corn fields after that stop, ladies and gentlemen. My next post is coming to you from somewhere in Iowa/Nebraska/Wyoming and I suspect it may not be pretty. You can be sure the wheels will come off if I manage to find the mini-Dutch town in Nebraska that Lindsay and I stumbled onto the last time I drove out that way — not kidding, about the existence of said town or my reaction to it.
Peace out, people. Time to continue west.