Comforting Tedium: Road Trips and McDonald’s
A road trip across America is a prosaic journey over long stretches of relatively uniform landscapes punctuated by cities, rest stops, and a scatter of gas stations. In the midst of these miles of non-descript interstates are scores of fast food venues hawking pretty much the same convenience fare we would find at home. Travel takes us to novel places that remove us from the prosaic flow of everyday life, so desire for a Big Mac on the road trip—perhaps the most banal of all commodities–seems contradictory. Yet much of contemporary road travel appears intended to eliminate surprise along the way, and the string of McDonalds and fast food chains along the roadside are comforting but banal. In the context of the road trip, what is perhaps undervalued about fast food chains is their total predictability if not outright tedium; that is, we seem to value everything that streamlines the journey: well-maintained roads, a predictably operating car, conveniently placed rest stops, clearly marked roads, easy interchanges for gas and burgers, and rapid delivery of food requiring no thought.
The road trip is ideally efficient, predictable, and controlled, all of which are at the heart of what George Ritzer has referred to as a “McDonaldized” society. Ritzer used McDonalds as a metaphor for a hyper-efficient rationality, efficiency, and standardization that reaches beyond the Golden Arches, and the thousands of roadside fast food restaurants certainly make many of Ritzer’s points. Fast food restaurants all tend to foster some ennui and patterned tedium, but the road trip McDonalds may have somewhat different effects than those dotting our local neighborhoods. The interstate convenience restaurant actually may intensify McDonalds’ embrace of convenience, homogenization, tedium, and predictability.
The material spaces of fast food restaurants have not been examined especially closely by scholars, but the fare McDonalds and their peers offer have been dissected and are routinely panned: for some observers, fast food is simply unhealthy; others deplore the environmental implications of fast foodways, some question the social implications of a fast food culture; and a legion of foodies deplore the products. Yet simultaneously these restaurants are crowded with Americans attracted by inexpensive, predictable, and—to many palates—tasty, carbohydrate-rich, and salty foods.
The design creativity of fast food chains is rarely lauded by style mavens; instead chains are utterly standardized, mostly interchangeable spaces crafted from plastic. The plastic furnishings, pastel crawl-tubes and ball pits, and indestructible tile in McDonalds and other food chains are fundamentally functional, but they also tend to weather gracefully in the sense that they do not readily betray their age and appear to be from a particular stylistic moment.
For many of us making long-distance car trips, McDonalds and gas stations are the face of the small towns and rural stretches along the way. That face is predictably familiar, even though small details of accents, car tags, and weary fellow travelers betray that we’ve stepped outside our local everyday lives. We rarely fancy ourselves as being attracted to patterned repetitive banality, and our road trips to distant places are often considered to be akin to pilgrimages removing us from everyday life and yielding the personal clarity we may only get from contemplating a lovely park, touring a historic site, or assessing our dreams with Mickey Mouse as our mirror.
Perhaps the long drive remains a social experience, a forced bonding in the face of road trip boredom and mounting traveling tension. The road trip does pull us out of our everyday lives in some ways, if for no other reason than because the passage of time is experienced as a spatial dislocation, and floral changes, topographical transformation, and new symbols (e.g., regional restaurant chains) underscore our distance in space. We tend to romanticize the road trip as a journey of discovery or rebellious critique, and we sometimes fancy the road to Orlando as a metaphorical wilderness. But the monotony of the road and the prosaic familiarity of the golden arches and Big Macs make the road trip a less jarring dislocation. They may confirm that for many American road travelers it is less about the journey than the destination.
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McDonalds Connecticut image Scoobyfoo
McDonalds Nevada image from Zach H
McDonalds Sign image from smenzel
McDonalds Spokane image from Sport Suburban