I just returned from a 4000 mile road trip around the Eastern US, and I’ve noticed something. When you’ve been in the car, watching the landscape slide by the windows for hours on end, you realize that Everywhere, America looks like Everywhere Else, America. Remove the dusting of snow, the covering of kudzu (the plant that ate the South), change the elevation slightly, alter some letters in the town names, and all places seem to blend into one. There’s a gas station, usually more than one, three or four competing family type restaurants (insert Chili’s, Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel here), a Walmart, and some other big box stores. Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Carolina (North or South), New York, Florida–it all looks the same except for the hills/mountains in the distance or lack thereof.
I’m not saying that different places in America don’t have distinct personalities. I’m sure that if I were to spend time in a local haunt, talk to some people who live there and work away from the stops near the highway, or spend more than a passing moment actually in the place, each town would leave distinct impressions on me. And certain places on this trip did that.
Boyne, Michigan is a tiny little town, but they have an indoor water park. In Michigan. I live in Florida and we don’t have indoor water parks! I know, I know, you are thinking “Why would they need water parks inside? Florida weather is postcard perfect heavenly!” Of course. But spend a sweat-soaked July afternoon cooking in the Florida sun, and then tell me you wouldn’t enjoy the regulated 68 degrees of an indoor water park! (end rant)
I went to Niagara Falls as a child, but have few memories of the place (lots of water and noise). Apparently, we must have gone during the summer because the American side seems to roll up the streets during the winter. Still, it was nice to stand near the falls (Yes, I know the view from Canada is better. Yes, I know there is more to do over there. We didn’t bring our passports, so it wasn’t an option.), hear the roar, feel the icy spray, and watch my five-year old daughter giggle in delight as she pulled icicles from the railing and throw them over the cliff. Apparently, wonder of the world = 0; icicle tossing = 1.
New York City is always different from anywhere else, but I grew up going to the city often, so it’s not a new delight to me. It’s still wonderful and amazing every time I go, but it’s always part of a trip to visit relatives–and that’s never the same as going somewhere to be on vacation. We did go on the Staten Island Ferry and splash by the Statue of Liberty though (and some guy tried to sell us tickets to the free ferry ride, of course. Welcome to New York!).
I have never been to Myrtle Beach, so that was nice. Even though it’s Spring Break, we were at a smaller family-oriented resort, so the party madness was far away. I live in Florida though, so the beach isn’t that different for me. It was odd to remember that the big deal on the Atlantic is the sunrise, not the sunsets I see over the Gulf at home.
But even with those places standing out, there were still thousands of miles of the same, of truck stops and stores and people who all seemed to blend together in the end: Americans. Even getting off the interstate to follow two-lane roads through back country started to look the same–windmills here in the mountains, heavy farming equipment parked there in fields, abandoned houses with collapsed roofs every few miles.
I keep trying to think of this similarity of geography in terms of my writing (and my reading). When characters in a story are in a forest, it can be Any Forest; so too for Any Small Town, Any Village Pub, Any Place Anywhere! How can I make my places distinct? And then, ultimately, does that really matter? I don’t generally focus on the place in the story (unless it’s significant, integral to the plot, familiar and named, or I’m reading Tolkien who beats me over the head with his detailed descriptions of foliage); I focus on the characters. I care about them and what they do and say; the place is usually just background, useful for details about personal comfort or delightful view, but ultimately forgettable–or at least understandable as some generic version of the place.
Maybe I should spend more time thinking about places as distinct. Then I will see the difference the next time I drive around the country.