(This piece was originally published in 2017.)
In 1977 I began taking road trips (driving a car or truck) up and down Interstate 80. I had taken a few road trips prior, but 1977 was the first time I drove cross-country as an adult and for work… the first time I was looking on the experience with moderately confident and mature eyes.
I’ve taken road trips many times since, though not in the past two years. That was a long gap for me. And then, just a few weeks ago, I took another trip down I-80. I quickly realized that this trip was almost precisely 40 years after my first one, and along the long, quiet stretches of highway, I found myself remembering those first few trips and contrasting them with this one.
What I found surprised me. And so, here’s my report from the road concerning the changes of the past 40 years. I’ll start at the most obvious place:
The roads are slightly better. The roads aren’t a lot better than they were, but the best roads are better and the worst roads are no worse. So in general, the roads are a bit better than they were in 1977. Roadside services are very definitely better.
The corporations have taken over. One of my regular exits has become unrecognizable over the past five years, overgrown with corporate outlets. Part of this is understandable: You know that the food you get at any McDonalds (or Subway or Denny’s or whatever) will be the same you’ll get at any other. There’s an attractive degree of safety in that. The larger reason, however, is simply that corporations have a vastly more advantageous position. They can run through whatever regulatory gauntlets they find (in many cases they paid for the gauntlets), while the mom-and-pop stores cannot. Furthermore, since 2008 the giant corporations have had access to an endless supply of loans at near-zero percent interest. They’ve been able to build whatever they want, wherever they want. Mom and pop’s kids are managers for corporate chains these days.
Network news has become trash. I don’t watch “the news” at home and I don’t listen to it while driving. On the road for an extended period, however, I decided to try it a few times. It was awful. Now, to be fair, it wasn’t great in 1977 either, but at least they tried to cover the important stories in those days; they had some basic pride in their profession. Now the news is simply a joke. I heard zero international news, zero depth on anything, and nothing but the most sensational stories, usually with a sickening level of political correctness. The depth of this fall was rather shocking to me. Local news was about the same.
The people are better. This was the big one. The people of 2017 really were better than the people of 1977. They were kinder, more polite, and less competitive. At one truck stop, as I was carrying a child, a complete stranger, a middle-aged man, stepped up and poured a cup of coffee for me, then carefully got the cream and sugar right. He had no reason to do this aside from benevolence. I very often smile at people, but I hadn’t smiled at this man; he came from my blind side. And he was far from the only benevolent stranger I ran into along the way.
Road trips in America are still enjoyable. An American road trip is easy. Yes, there can be traffic jams in the cities and aggressive traffic near the cities, but the open highway is still a place you can relax and think about life. I’ve taken road trips in other parts of the world, and they are not the same (though Canada is close). In Europe, for example, a road trip is challenging end to end. In South America it can be nice and loose, but that calm is often punctuated by moments of terror. In America, however, you can still spend long, pleasant hours, comfortably driving and getting back in touch with your soul. I very much hope that never changes.