Unfolding the Map
Come on, Littourati. Put on your fat pants and let's talk about junk food on car trips as William Least Heat-Moon steps int the store to buy his road food. You know about junk food on car trips! The food that after you eat it, you have to drive with the top button undone because you feel so bloated, and you have to bite your hand because the sugar rush has become a sugar crash and you need to make it to a motel before you fall asleep? I'm pretty sure you've had that experience sometime in your life. To see where we're getting our calories on, drag yourself to the map!
"In Poplar, Montana, where Sitting Bull surrendered six years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, I stopped for groceries. Having resisted a chewing hunger for five days - before meals, after meals, in moments of half-sleep - I gave in to it...and bought a pound of raisins, a pound of peanuts, a pound of chocolate nibs and mixed them together. By the time I got to North Dakota, the bag was empty, the hunger gone."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7
There's nothing like driving long distances to promote the eating of absolute garbage. Why is that? I have a theory. First, you have to be able to get stuff that you can easily eat. If you are planning to eat and drink while driving, then it has to be things with an easy-to-open package and that are easy to get out of the package while steering. Mostly, those things come in easy to remove wrappers or bags that one can fit a hand into.
Though now that I think about it, Pringles are terrible for that. It's a long, deep canister that you can only reach into about halfway unless you have a small hand and wrist. About halfway through, you are relegated to turning the can sideways to try to get some of the chips to slide toward the opening, or you need to turn up the can over your mouth almost as if you are drinking the chips. That hasn't stopped me from buying them, however.
Another food group that is relatively easy to eat is the fast food burger. You pull into a drive-thru, order the food which comes in a handy paper bag, with a drink and a straw on the side, and you're good to go. Especially if it's relatively dry hamburger. Some places now serve juicy hamburgers with some type of sauce on them, and you are just asking for mustard and grease on your lap. But a McDonald's hamburger is usually dry enough that you can get through it while steering without any major mishaps.
Second, and this might be a stretch, but I think that the interstate system tailored us to expect easy-to-eat fast and junk food convenience. Before the interstates, driving was a leisure activity in itself. There were no drive-thru's and off-ramp convenience stores. The roads went through the center of towns and cities, and getting a meal meant stopping, getting out of the car and sitting down in a diner or a cafe. Sure, you could purchase a soda or a candy bar for the road, but that meant going to the drug store or the small mom and pop place. Once the interstates came into being, the main highways bypassed the downtowns. Gas stations moved out next to the on- and off-ramps and then began to put in convenience stores. Fast food places, catering to people on the go, moved out nearer to the interstate exits as well. Suddenly, it became an inconvenience to drive into a town and get a meal at a restaurant.
LHM's quote comes really as the fast-food phenomenon is starting to take off in the early 1980s. He mentions Sitting Bull, whose tribe's version of road food was probably some smoked meat in a small sack underneath the saddle blanket that had to be smoked carefully over a long period of time, after the animal was hunted, brought down, and dressed. Now, if Sitting Bull were alive today, he could get 50 different kinds of jerky made from who knows what - perhaps an animal killed in a slaughterhouse - and run through some sort of industrial jerky-making process. LHM seems to make something reasonably healthy for his hunger out of raisins, peanuts and chocolate bits to serve as road food. I wonder if he were undertaking this trip in 2012 if he would eat similarly, or if he would succumb like the rest of us to the siren call of the convenience store, the beckonings of the candy, the processed food, and the colored corn syrups?
We have become all about getting places as quickly as possible. Driving is not necessarily leisure. It's the thing we have to do to get places, whether we are searching for leisure or not. Therefore, I believe that driving has become a chore for most people that they accept and do because they have to. Because of the compulsion to get places faster, we don't treat ourselves by stopping into a town and getting a meal at a local diner and take time to soak up the ambience, instead we treat ourselves to fast and junk food on the road.
Upwards of twenty-seven years ago, some friends and I tried something different. We had noticed that when we went on trips together, we always ate junk food. On an eight hour trip to northern Michigan, we decided to try eating good food on the road. We bought trail mix, fruit, and nuts. We drank juices instead of sodas. And we arrived at our destination fresh. We didn't feel bloated. We didn't feel oversugared. We didn't feel tired. We were really awake and alive.
It didn't feel right...
We had become so used to getting out of the car trashed from abusing ourselves with candy and chips, sodas, burgers, fries, milkshakes and such that it actually felt as if something were wrong to be so fresh after such a long trip. On the way back home, we reverted to our old ways. I don't know if it says something about how Americans have become addicted to garbage food, or if it says something about us as twenty-somethings who usually don't care what they eat, or both. I still haven't learned my lesson, though. I eat better and pay more attention to what I eat when I'm home, but when I'm on the road, give me my car and a Coke (and Spree and Twizzlers and a burger and some Pringles) to steer her by.
If you want to know more about Poplar
Next up: Culbertson, Montana