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  • by Karen Cummings

The Homogenization of America

Driving across the U.S of A. is always an amazing undertaking—this is one big country. Of course, who am I to speak, when this is actually only the second time I've done it?

My first time, I took the northern route, across Interstate 94 through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan et. al. I took this trip four years ago with my youngest daughter, Bridget, and we stayed or ate at some great places, some not so great, but they were all unique—never part of a chain. Places like the Top Hat Motel in Washington state or Bergman's Restaurant in Minnesota, all had a flavor all their own and were fun to discover and patronize.

This time, however, I took the southern route, along 1-40 through such great states as Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas—places I had never been to before, but you'd never know it by where we stayed and where we ate. Why? Because everything is a chain.

My biggest impression of the trip, other than the amazing flatness of the Texas Panhandle and the "thrill" of going to Graceland, was of the signs on giant poles all along the highway trying to lure us to their places of business. Comfort Inns, Best Westerns, Motel 6s, Super 8s, Holiday Inns—they've all clustered by the exits together with McDonalds, Burger Kings, Shoneys and Pizza Huts.

Now, not that any of these places aren't perfectly good, but going to the McDonald's in Nashville, Tenn., or the Pizza Hut in Russellville, Ark., is almost exactly the same as going to the McDonald's or Pizza Hut in North Conway except the waitperson's accent is quite a bit different. It did make it hard to tell that I was almost 2000 miles away from home.

The rooms were all the same whether we picked a Comfort Inn, a Holiday Inn or a Super 8—if we took a picture of it, inside or out, there was nothing to say we were staying in Harrisonburg, Va., or Amarillo, Texas.

Having just chain establishments to greet you as you drive off the interstate makes it hardly inviting to stop and look around unless absolutely necessary. We tried finding lodging and dining in non-chain establishments, but even the guidebooks and the gas station attendants all recommended the chains.

Surprisingly, the big exception to all this was found in Conway, Texas. The one motel in this barren little stop off I-40 was painted shocking pink and called the L.A. Motel. I don't know why; Los Angeles is more than a 1000 miles away.

We stopped at the Conway Texaco and I, of course, told the station attendant, a very weather-beaten, dusty looking man who was also the owner, that I was from Conway, N.H. He gave me that “sure thing, hon’” smile, but then said he once got a letter delivered to him that was addressed to the Conway [Texas] Chamber of Commerce, of which there is no such thing. It was from some in a Conway back East, but he couldn’t remember exactly where.

"She wanted to know how the town got its name," he explained. "I wrote back and told her I didn't know, but then said to my wife that I should have told her than an escaped convict once bilked two old ladies out of their fortune in this town so they called it Con-Way."

My friend and I thought that was as good an explanation as any and probably would have added an interesting aspect to the woman's research. We left him shaking his head and laughing.

I'd say that Mt. Washington Valley has fared well in this homogenization of the travel industry—there are a few chains, yes, but still a plethora of uniqueness. Quality uniqueness at that. I hope the town continues to work hard to preserve this all too important, to me at least, attribute.

And as an added observation, along with these chains in the United States' southern tier were two other landmarks which made me think of home—factory outlet centers and Wal-Marts.

At every place across the country that could he remotely considered a tourist attraction, there were factory outlet malls built up. I’ll be the first to say that these looked spanking new and didn't have quite the ambience, if that's what you want to call it, and variety that North Conway's, more established, outlets have, but it let me know that our shopping "scene" is not exactly unique.

And, throughout the drive, the Wal-Marts all looked the same (painted gray concrete block buildings) and the exits with Wal-Marts, chain motels, gas stations and fast food stops (which were almost all of them) all looked the same.

It made me wonder what the proposed bypass, with its exit ramps here and there, would end up presenting to the driving-by public, especially with the planned Wal-Mart to be located right at North Conway's southern exit.

We should all hope that however it is done—if it's ever done—someone makes the effort to make sure that it doesn't end up looking the same as a thousand exits do now across this great country of ours.

Editor’s Note: This was written 25 years ago when then Mountain Ear Features Editor Karen Cummings was off on "an excellent adventure" with her "old" college friend Peggy Soltesz to ski the Rockies for two months, starting in Santa Fe and winding up in Lake Louise in Canada. She was supposed to send back regular columns on her impressions along the Great Divide, but this ended up being the only one.


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