Where’s Wal-Mart?

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I’m spending a few days in eastern Tennessee, where the land is so wrinkled and roads so winding that even a Greyhound bus driver can get lost on them.

True story. This year’s conference of the Sport Literature Association, of which I am a member*, is at Eastern Tennessee State University, in Johnson City. I traveled here from Maine by bus, train, and bus again. Knowing that public transportation in this car-saturated country of ours can sometimes be unreliable, I planned an itinerary with loose connections. I left Bangor on the Concord Coach bus at 7 in the morning, took the train from Boston to Washington, a bus to Richmond and another bus to Johnson City, arriving at three the following afternoon.

I like riding buses and trains. I get a fair amount of writing done on them, which one can’t do while driving. Waiting between connections is no more onerous and much less stressful than navigating city traffic or sitting in a jam on the Interstate.

But by two-thirty on the second day, I was ready to stop moving. “Next stop, Johnson City, thirty minutes,” the young driver announced. I’d arranged to be met at the bus station, and it looked like the bus was going to be on time.

Half an hour passed, and Johnson City failed to materialize. One of the pleasures of public transportation is leaving the navigation to others. I’d been looking out the window, enjoying the scenery on my first visit to this part of the country. But I was beginning to wonder where this city was.

Another half hour went by. My cellphone rang. It was an SLA colleague, waiting at the bus station, asking where I was. I told him honestly that I did not know, but that I expected to arrive within minutes. All I could see out the window were lush green hills and four lanes of curving highway, but I figured Johnson City could not be far away. The driver had announced the stop an hour ago.

Barely a minute after I assured him of my impending arrival, the driver got on the mike and apologized – he had made a wrong turn at a detour in the last town, and needed to turn the bus around. The guy in the seat in front of me, who knew the area, explained that he had driven most of an hour in the wrong direction.

The saga ended happily with my arrival in Johnson City an hour and ten minutes late. Don Johnson (yes, in Johnson City; no, not the actor) was there to meet me, having driven twice from the ETSU campus to the bus station.

Every time I visit a mid-sized American city outside of a major metropolitan area, I despair of convincing anyone to give up car ownership. Johnson City has a nominal downtown, but much of its commerce is scattered in clumps far from the center and from each other. Everything is laid out for the automobile. Everybody drives. I saw bike lanes but no bicycles, and few pedestrians. There is a local bus service, but I will not be here long enough to figure it out. Like Bangor’s, it operates six days a week and shuts down around six in the evening.

On my second night here, our group went out to a brewery in nearby Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. We piled into cars for the ten-mile journey, and on the way back, one of us wanted to stop at a Wal-Mart. No problem, said Scott, our driver. He whipped out his smart phone and found three Wal-Marts in the area. Navigating the highways and commercial clusters by GPS, the four of us in the car couldn’t find any of them. We saw every other chain store known to man, but no Wal-Mart.

It got to be funny as hell after awhile, as darkness descended and we drove past one lookalike intersection after another. How can you NOT find a Wal-Mart? Drive any distance in America and you almost can’t help running into one. We never did. Michelle abandoned her quest for a bathing suit and a pair of sunglasses, and we returned to the ETSU campus, where, fortunately, there was a bar within walking distance.

Maybe the southern heat and humidity discourage people from walking or bicycling in June, but I think the infrastructure discourages them more. When everything is five miles from everything else and surrounded by parking lots and traffic islands, it sends a powerful message that the car, and not the human being, is the basic unit of transportation.

It’s time for a new message.

 

* My baseball novel, Tartabull’s Throw, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2001.

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