I spent a little time driving through “fly-over” country last week. Made more than a few passes down IL Route 59, between Joliet and Aurora. I almost didn’t recognize it. Back when I lived there in the early 90′s and before, most of that was farmland. Once you got past Plainfield and the glass factory, a few houses dotted the landscape, but for the most part, there were fields on every part of the street. Not any more. Now, by my informal count, there were about 736 strip malls, with every store you can imagine — repeating every five miles. But it was the same stores. If it hadn’t been for the old gas stations, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize where I was.
While I was driving, I started to wonder. Is this what so-called real America looks like? This is the place that our values are supposed to be most encapsulated? A place where there’s a McDonalds for every turn of the odometer? I remember being forced to watch a movie set in the 50′s where one character, a military type, was explaining the dangers of communism. He pointed out that if the communists took over, we would have no choices. Everything everywhere would be the same. But I guess that’s not completely the case here. I guess we have the choice to buy our Quarter Pounders from different owners.
Really, I don’t know what to make of what I saw. I suppose a part of me is just dismayed because where I’m from doesn’t look like it did when I lived there. Change is difficult, even from 700 miles and 15 years away. There’s a part of me that feels a certain comfort when I can drive through an old neighborhood and see the tree I fell out of, or the bait store I used to stop at before I went fishing. I suppose that sensation is what drives a lot of the protests about…well, everything. Incremental change is slightly discomforting; wholesale change is alarming. Had I been back more frequently, I might have seen the transformation as it was happening, so I wouldn’t be quite as shocked.
At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that change is not necessarily progress. I’m sure that the changes that Route 59 has undergone signify that a lot of people have made a whole lotta money — and that a whole lotta other people have spent a whole, whole lotta money. People have been able to claim their piece of the American Dream, working hard and owning a spacious home and some property. For them, I’m sure that the change is equivalent to progress. For me, as someone who doesn’t live there anymore, and as someone for whom that lifestyle is not the ideal, none of that is really better, it’s just different.
In the end, I think that in some way, Route 59 does represent what’s really real about America. It’s not about the dichotomy of the rural and the urban, because Route 59 is happening everywhere, and at some point, even the suburbs become urban. It’s really the combination of the two. Real America is not ‘or,’ it’s ‘and.’ Real America is rural and urban. It’s working hard and getting over. It’s the religious and the secular. It’s homogeneity and diversity. It’s the individual and the collective. It’s ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and what’s ours is ours, and every possible permutation of the three. That’s not just different, it’s good.