Brown column for April 4

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 13, 2004

If someone plucked you up and set you down in an automobile on an interstate highway, would you have any idea where you were?

I’d guess not. If it were dark, when you can’t tell much about the topography, you could be anywhere in the country. Most of the signs clustered at the interchanges are, well, interchangeable: the same gasoline stations, the same fast food places, the same motels. In the daytime you could at least, tell whether you are in mountains or plains or deserts.

Predictability has some merits, but too much of it leads to boredom.

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It’s not just the interstates that have become a succession of sameness.

At one time, major highways ran right through the middle of towns, and each town had its own landmarks, its own character.

Now we have bypasses around even small towns, and, as could have been expected, businesses migrated to the bypasses. Often they leave empty buildings in what had been a thriving town center. Except for a city limits sign or a welcome to wherever sign, these bypasses all look the same. There are the same businesses that you see at the interstate exits plus tire stores and car lots and strip malls.

You can drive past my little home town on U.S. 280 and not even be aware that there’s an interesting town just a couple of blocks away.

Perhaps initially the sameness brought a certain amount of comfort.

When you pull into a Holiday Inn or a McDonald’s, you have a pretty good idea of what it is going to be like.

It was different before the chaining of America’s eating and sleeping establishments, before there was an interstate highway to carry you almost everywhere, travel was less certain and demanded a little more planning.

It was important to know where you were going to spend the night. With no nationally branded motels in every town, you couldn’t count on there being suitable accommodations easily at hand.

That was way an American Automobile Association travel guide was almost as important as a road map. Armed with the AAA publication, you could make reservations at a motel whose name you’d never heard with some assurance that the accommodations would match the description in the book.

Eating was a little more of an adventure, too. You picked out a place that seemed to have a lot of cars in front or asked at the motel or a gas station. Sometimes a friend recommended a place along your route.

You could be pretty sure the food wasn’t going to be just like that at the last place you ate, or at the next one. Sometimes the food was bad; sometimes it was surprisingly good.

When we were traveling with children, of course, p,redictability was a plus. Life was much more pleasant for everyone if we knew where we were going to stay and that the place would be acceptable. With children, predictability in food is a blessing.

Now that most of our travels don’t involve children uniformity in food and lodging is just boring.

Sometimes schedules or business commitments demand that we stay at one of the same old places. When we can, though, we try to look for variety, perhaps a bed and breakfast place. B&B’s are rarely located at an interstate exit or along a bypass, so we get an opportunity to see what a place is really like.

And it’s fun to try a restaurant or caf/ where the menu doesn’t look exactly like the one at a spot just down the road.

I think the trips that we remember most are those to places that had their own identities.

There are still such places, if we look. Meanwhile, I wonder how many towns realize that they are dying a slow death by allowing themselves to look like every other town.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2004 William B. Brown