I recently read a New Yorker article on the demise of the traditional megamall, with their soulless concrete façades surrounded by a moat of parking somewhere in the suburban sea. It got me thinking about the entrances/freeway exits to most North American cities and towns.
Like a Las Vegas casino, they inexorably parade you past a gaudy, neon spectacle of gas stations, chain motels and the usual fast-food outlets. So familiar is this blueprint that without a map, you’d be hard pressed to tell where you are. It all looks the same.
But from all my road-trip travels, I’m detecting a kickback. The glittering entrances may be where the traffic is, but the real action is someplace else—in the centre, in fact. And the key to finding it lies in the freeway signs, not the ones luring you to the chains but the ones saying “Historic Downtown.” (This obviously applies more to compact towns than sprawling cities, where interesting, independent places are harder for visitors to find).
Take that exit, drive for a few minutes and look for another indicator: a line of low downtown buildings, with little collections of cars and trucks parked out front. Not surprisingly, these businesses are often literally on Main Street. This is where these towns got started, where the remaining historical buildings are, where the true soul and character of these communities reside.
It’s where, as a road-trip diner, you’ll usually find two things. One is the local hangout, a diner or coffee shop where the regulars banter with the servers on a first-name basis and where the fare is basic but filling and affordable. The other is older buildings refurbished by, typically, youngish entrepreneurs interested in more modern cuisine but in a historic setting.
Finding these places involves a willingness to get off the bypassing highway and do a bit of exploring. There’s no guarantee you’ll hit pay dirt, but at worst you’ll get a drive past what defines, or once defined, these communities.
Recently, for example, three of us were driving on Highway 6 between Salt Lake City and Moab, in southeast Utah. It was a scenic road I’d taken half a dozen times without stopping. But this time, I glanced over at some old buildings in the small community of Helper and took the exit into the historic downtown.
While I was ordering a coffee at the nicely renovated and wonderfully named Happiness Within, a companion ducked into a potter’s studio and discovered that Helper had become a magnet for artists, who were helping refurbish a town named for the extra engines required to pull trains up nearby steep grades. I wandered across the street to the spacious, wood-floored Balance Rock Eatery & Pub. We’d already eaten, but I was impressed by a monstrous breakfast burrito being tackled by a local diner.
A similar willingness to explore led me to one of my favourite western U.S. towns, Salida, in mountainous central Colorado. The approach on Highway 50 promised nothing but the usual commercial strip, but we persevered and drove into the heart of downtown. There, we discovered great galleries, an art park and, alongside the headwaters of the Arkansas River, painted containers of flowers and great little eateries like The Fritz.
The lesson here is what is old is new again. Finding it will unlock you from your chains.