© Norman Sperling, January 5, 2015
Chain stores have taken over even more than before. There are still regional and local stores but overall every covered shopping center looks and feels like every other one, and so does every big-box shopping center.
Many chains are now huge. Enormous numbers of small towns have a local grocery store, of sorts, because Dollar General and Family Dollar have spotted their niche. Lowe’s and Aldi are among many other big chains. Truck stops used to be largely Union 76; now they’re Love’s and Pilot/Flying J.
This has brought tremendous variety to places that formerly didn’t enjoy as much. Customers flock to Walmart not only because the prices are low and the quality acceptable, but also because the store has many tens of thousands of different items more than the local stores it replaced. Collectively, chain stores have unified the “American experience” about as much as the highway network and mass media.
Wineries have sprouted all over the map! Most of them probably don’t grow their own grapes, but the wineries themselves have enormously proliferated.
Good coffee is a phenomenon America owes mostly to Starbucks. You always could get a cup of coffee, but there used to be just one kind, and it wasn’t gourmet. Now even truck stops offer >5 types, most of them premium quality. For consumers, this is wonderful.
Cellphone towers uglify the landscape but serve the public. As spectacularly as cellphone service has grown, I still find myself in plenty of places with no service, or very little. I expect that when I go geologizing and nature walking. More surprising is the lack of signal in many RV camps and US routes. Cellphone towers seem ubiquitous but they aren’t all in my network.
Electronic message signs have sprung up on roads and elsewhere.
Firewood bundles are now for sale, often in self-serve stacks for a few bucks. People used to gather their own.
Singlewide and Doublewide mobile homes have largely replaced older, flimsier dwellings like shotgun shacks. Manufactured homes look awfully plain, and old, damaged ones are not rare or pretty, but I remember the shanties they replaced, and mobile homes are way better. They seem to last 30-40 years, which is way less than a sturdy house, but can handle a major part of a person’s or family’s life. Though a great many people find them the solution of choice for their budgets and situations, many towns don’t let them in. That’s a huge mistake. The image of “trailer trash” is not a total myth but slurs a lot of people of good character who, for various reasons, have to (or prefer to) make do on little cash -- like me.
Storage facilities have proliferated immensely. A lot of them occupy marginal land near freeways, rivers, and railroads. There’s also a burgeoning business in storage sheds. All that means that Americans now own more than we used to. Some of it is not so good -- displaced people stowing stuff till they can recover, for example. But much marks the prosperity that started in the post-WWII boom. We’re not yet wise about what not to buy and what not to keep, having had no cultural experience with the problem. But we have stuff that we want to keep, which is way better than not having it.
Motorcycle clubs tour all sorts of places. Not only on scenic routes everywhere I go, but also on some less-scenic highways, I see many groups of motorcyclists. Harleys dominate but other brands buzz by me too. Most riders appear to be in their 50s and 60s. They’re invariably polite and sociable; the fearsome thunderous noise runs counter to their personal demeanor. Not only are pleasure rides very much a thing to do, but lots of places now qualify as such. Maybe the non-scenic areas are on the way to a scenic goal, such as a tourist town tucked away somewhere. Seeing so many joyriders reassures me that I’m seeing a lot of the best scenery myself.