Almost always, Susan and I make an effort to take the back roads instead of interstates. Traveling the interstates, everything is homogenized across the country. Almost every single exit has the same restaurant chains; McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell and if it's an upscale exit, you might have Applebees. There's nothing wrong with these restaurants. Chains and franchises are an American approach to business. For the founders and owners, they're the embodiment of the American Dream.
But homogenization via the interstates is counter to one core American value that I hold possibly in the highest esteem: individualism. This country was partly founded on the idea that you could be different, a total outsider, and still be a part of the American fabric. To find this unique quality, it seems to me, in both people and their businesses, you have to get away from the interstates and out onto the country roads and US highways that take you through small towns and scenic landscapes. One of my life rules is, "Whenever possible, take the scenic route."
Between September 14 and 17, I played four shows back east in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and NYC. On our way to the first show in D.C., while taking the back roads, we stopped in Lancaster, PA, for lunch and a beer at the local brewery. We sat at the bar and talked beer with a couple of the employees and three other locals who joined us at the bar after we sat down. As each person saddled up to the old oak bar, they said hello and joined in the conversation. We all discussed the beer menu, the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge that was currently burning, and what it was like to live in a desert. One of the guys had spent a lot of time in New Mexico...and we were headed there the following week. The conversation was engaging. I felt proud to live in a country where you could show up at a place like this and get to know others who had just walked in the door. It's the same reason I love hanging out at the one bar in my hometown, Landers Brew.
Less than a week later, Susan and I found ourselves in Albuquerque. It was late, after the show, everything was closed and we were hungry. Lucky for us, there was an all night Applebees across the street from our fleabag motel. We sat at the bar and ordered food. No one spoke to us and we spoke to nobody else. The bartender was friendly and she definitely knew the locals, most of whom were coming in from late night shifts at the airport. But the people at the bar didn't interact with one another...only with the bartender and other staff at the restaurant.
What is it that makes a brewery in Lancaster and an Applebees in Albuquerque so different? Is it because the former is unique? While the latter could be in anytown, USA? Is it because Americans have become absorbed by their phones and are less connected to those around them? Did we just get lucky in Lancaster and happened to pick a place with friendly patrons? I didn't find Albuquerque to be an unfriendly town....actually, quite the opposite. But what is it about some places that when you saddle up to the bar, you introduce yourself....In a chain, that's considered outright weird behavior.
Hanging out at Landers Brew, I came up with another rule, but I'm trying to figure out how to apply it to the homogenized, off the interstate, chain restaurants and bars. That rule is, "When you sit down at the bar, introduce yourself to everyone." This rule works great at any desert dive, upscale micro brewery, or back country roadhouse. It doesn't work out off the interstate....at least for the most part. Maybe that's one of America's big problems. Where the most populace is, there is also the least interaction between people. We should change that.