Chain, chain, chain….we need a change

We live in an era of the corporate chain. The idea is to homogenize America, and by default, the world into nice, tidy, manageable units with a one-size-fits-all theme. Whether it was the intent or not, it is successfully beating out the uniqueness that was once the good ol’ USA.

Walmart, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Holiday Inn Express, Exxon, Shell, and just about any other franchise you can imagine has remade the American landscape into a bland, sameness that has largely removed the regional differences that once made this country great.

We travel often, spend too much time in motel chains, and drive the interstate highways much too often. When I have the chance, I take the back roads, the slower, time-consuming two-lane highways that crisscross the nation. My preference is a local restaurant, with local cuisine, and a local clientele as well. Finding locally owned, non-chain motels is a bit more challenging.

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Imagine if you tried to buy gasoline or diesel from a non-corporate station. Are there any left in our little corner of paradise?

As a kid, we traveled from Arkansas to Riverton each summer to visit my grandparents with my dad driving our 1962 Chevy Nova across the vast expanse of the Great Plains. A few years later, the direction was reversed with the reliable little Nova 400 Wagon crossing the Sierra Nevada between Sacramento and Reno for the trek east to Riverton.
One summer, we drove south from Sacramento to Bakersfield then cut east to Arkansas traveling the legendary Route 66 across the barren, hot expanse that doesn’t get much better from Death Valley east through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and finally my other grandparent’s home near Mariana, Arkansas.

It was so hot on the road back home that even with the add-on air conditioner at full power, the plastic eyes on my little sister Susie’s Teddy Bear melted as we drove through Oklahoma City. It was hot.

Motels used to be an exciting place to frequent on these cross-country ventures and my parents had a couple we always stopped at since we traveled these routes so often. As a little kid, the strange TV channels, the heavy, humid heat of the night air, and the bright lights of the billboards as we approached the towns of the Midwest were memorable.

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As a high school kid, we often stayed in Worland, Thermopolis, Cody, Powell, Casper, and Laramie, with one stop at a state FFA Convention in Newcastle.

I’ve written this before, but we had only one TV station in the valley west of Riverton, channel 10 out of Thermopolis. A few friends in town had eight or 10 cable TV channels, but my other friends who lived west of Morton didn’t have TV at all.

I remember one track trip to Powell when the kids from Crowheart stayed up all night watching TV. One girl on the team told us it was the first time she’d ever watched television. She was fascinated by it.

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In those days the old tube TVs sat on the floor and you could hardly see them from the bed unless you switched ends and lay on your stomach.

Today’s modern rooms all have flat panel displays, prominently raised so you can see them from every angle in the room, but a funny thing happened in those intervening decades from high school sports and club trips to the motels of today.

The channels at the motel pale in comparison to what you can watch at home. Cable TV, satellite networks, and now the rise of digital viewing via the internet have created a costly venture that motel chains just can’t keep up with.

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When I worked as the technology director at Wyoming Indian, Direct TV had an offer for free television to schools. I applied, got the grant, and purchased three “head end units” for the elementary, middle, and high schools.

A headend unit is what many motels use to this day. It is a rack of satellite receivers with 12, 24, or up to 96 units packed into a computer closet. Each box is tuned to a single station, and the head end unit takes those signals, applies them to channels, and sends them out via coaxial cable. It sounds complicated, but it’s not.

One afternoon, when the kids were gone, and the staff was in meetings I watched as one of the channels in a commons area began to change stations. The stations changed, but the subject material remained closely the same. Girls in bikinis were on the screen. Some came from MTV, a few more from a beach volleyball contest, and still more from other venues.

I knew what was going on. I’d shown a couple of custodians how to change channels and troubleshoot problems if I wasn’t available. They’d taken their lunch break in the computer closet with the head end unit and were checking out the girls on the preview monitor. What they didn’t realize is that they were broadcasting it to all the TVs in the high school, several dozen of them at the same time. They were mortified when I told them and quickly set the channel back to the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, or A&E, whatever educational station I’d originally set it to.

I had a good laugh at their expense, but they took it well and I think we were the only ones that noticed.

Entertainment comes in many forms, and broadcast media is gradually eroding the differences that once made traveling so much fun.

When everything is homogenized, it loses its flavor.

Always order the special at a local restaurant, it’s something my college roommate Frank Schmidt always said, and he was right. It is the best the locals can offer, and often a unique experience you won’t find in some mundane chain.

At the end of the day, we have so many entertainment options, so many channels to choose from, so many ways to listen to music and so many competing venues trying to steal our time and sell advertising that in the process we lose attention.

Take the back road, the road less traveled, buy something from a local shop, avoid the chain, and enjoy life.

Some would say stop and smell the roses, but those thorns can be a problem.

Instead, just take your time and take in what remains of our uniqueness.

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