Live Free or … Click

March 28th, 2008
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Travel to the Great Republic south of the 49th always jars the mind with things that seem particularly “American”. As much of my last trip was spent on the road, what stuck seems mostly related to happenings along the asphalt.

Naming public works projects after politicians seems common everywhere, the States being no exception. Bridges and highways are fair game, from the entire Eisenhower interstate system, to individual stretches like the Baltimore-Washington parkway, named after former Congresswoman Gladys Spellman, as well as bridges and overpasses. While some are gratuitous, honouring local mayors or councillors, others are more commendable. North Carolina, for example, dedicates overpasses and – from the names – it seems these memorialize policemen and soldiers fallen in the line of duty. Not bad at all.

Another trend visible here, that is proliferating down south is changes in the mottos on license plates. You see a lot of these while driving. Years ago you could count on standard, classic mottos like “The Empire State”, “The Keystone State” or, my favourite “Famous Potatoes”. These often became an in-car family game to while away the hours; “give the motto, name the state”, or vice versa.

Then came the trend to replace these with public service, touristic or even moralistic slogans. As in Ontario where “Keep it Beautiful” (i.e. don’t litter) vied with “Yours to Discover”, now plates like Maryland’s sport eco-blurbs like “Cherish the Chesapeake”.

Turning the whole thing on its head, someone actually sued New Hampshire over the requirement to have the “political” statement “Live Free of Die” on his license plates. But millions of mini-billboards telling us to be green, that’s OK – you can be a green mountain boy, but not a Green Mountain Boy.

What’s worse, now mottos appear to be disappearing altogether. Instead, states are simply putting their websites on their plates. So instead of the mental image of Montana’s “Big Sky” you’re advised to view it on a 17 inch screen.

More importantly, the great free market engine to our south is providing more and better fast food opportunities for the weary traveller. Spreading from the heartland of Texas out into the southeast is Whataburger, a nice alternative to the big names. The big, char-broiled burgers allow choice of topping and come with traditional julienne fries – that is no starchy coating meant to maintain crispness in outer space. If you want to relive your youth, Dr. Pepper is featured at the soda fountain. Everything is made to order and top notch.

In the mid-Atlantic coast states, Five Guys is a must. Also big, but this time home-style fried burgers come with your choice of topping. But the crowning glory is the fresh cut French fries. Amazing! To add drama, they pile bags of Idaho’s finest in the middle of the restaurant. There’s even a sign on the wall telling you what town the week’s spuds come from. Not since Harvey’s abandoned fresh fries (“too much trouble”) has a franchise had such taste. The place is so anti-McFormula that they not only fry their fries in peanut oil, but have boxes of roasted peanuts set out for snacking – a little risky in today’s hyper-allergenic world. They don’t need all the glowing reviews and testimonials on the walls. The food speaks for itself.

So if you’re northbound on the Gladys Noon Spellman Memorial Parkway ignore all the license plate edicts. Just control your growling stomach and stop at Five Guys. If you can’t “Live Free”, at least the fries are to die for.

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