A middle-aged man forking long noodles from a Chinese takeout carton into his mouth. A young woman meticulously applying bright red lipstick. A girl completely engrossed in the screen of her smartphone (online shopping? tweeting? navigating? We’ll never know because we moved to the far lane, pronto).
Those are just a few of the characters we saw behind the wheel on America’s interstates last month, during our annual East Coast to Midwest Family Road Trip. I can’t think of a better way for entitled, slightly judgmental, over-educated Bostonians like us to experience The Real America than to drive across this particular slice of it. West on I-90 from Boston, pick up the Ohio Turnpike after Cleveland, and head north on 23 through Toledo to Ann Arbor and the countryside beyond. Toss in a few crisscrosses through Ohio (Columbus, Dayton, Bowling Green) and you’ve seen The Heartland.
A few observations about my old stomping grounds from an East Coast perspective…there are parking lots everywhere, all of them with room to spare! Thanks to these ever present acres of concrete, parallel parking has become a lost art like operating a manual transmission or making play dough from scratch. The grocery stores standing watch over those parking lots are meccas of comfort and convenience that put our Boston markets to shame. I saw 2 or 3 Kroger stores that had actual wine bars in them. One of them also sold furniture and automotive supplies. The shopping carts still have that new car smell and look like they’d be offended if you even considered swiping them with an antibacterial wipe. They proudly await my arrival in neat rows, in their very own room (the store’s foyer, if you will).
I hated returning home to my local grocery store (Shaws), which had always seemed perfectly acceptable but now seemed hopelessly sub-par. Not only is there no wine bar, there’s not so much as one dusty bottle (there’s a separate store for that in good old MA, because apparently the first thing the pilgrims did after landing on Plymouth Rock was establish a liquor distributors lobby that has clung ferociously to its monopoly ever since).
Here are other things you see along the interstates of the Midwest: billboards telling you that Jesus Loves You, cornfields that must have inspired the very concept of infinity, and the sloppy remains of wild animals that tried and failed to cross the road. Every so often you are treated to a vista worthy of poetry. In western New York, there are portions of I-90 that rise high enough to give drivers a glimpse of Lake Erie now and then, and it looks like a mighty ocean. Early in the morning in the higher elevations, fog settles comfortably in the valleys so it seems like you’re driving through the clouds when the road dips below the hilltops.
Not that my children saw any of these sights from the dark cave they rigged up in the back seat (“The better to see you with, My Beloveds!” they whispered to the screens of their iPods and iPads). A contraption involving blankets, extra sweatshirts, and a pillow pet blocked all light from the back seat, where they tapped away on their screens with a tenacity that would be truly impressive if applied to piano practice or the study of cancer cells.
The road trips of my youth were very different, as the three of us (the youngest in the middle and resigned to deal with “the hump”) craned our necks to look out the windows of our over-sized Buick, desperate to see something interesting. Maybe an unusual license plate, or a truck transporting livestock that we could see through the metal slats as we passed the poor unfortunates going to unthinkable destinations. We loved seeing a house being moved on a flatbed, each half adorned with fluorescent orange flags and taking up more than its fair share of the road. If we were lucky, we spotted a deer in a roadside meadow at dusk.
I saw all these things last week, much to my delight. But that’s because my eyes were on the road…not my cell phone, not my lipstick, and not my lunch.
They were on the road.