Monday, March 1, 2010

One Sandwich Short of a Picnic

If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?
-Marie Dressler

No, it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that, it is futile to attempt a picnic in Eden.
-Elizabeth Bowen

A classic Alfred Mainzer postcard

I am old enough, barely old enough, to remember an America without interstate highways. I remember what it was like to travel before fast food joints became ubiquitous…

We’d ride along those two-lane roads watching for the sign “Roadside Table – 1/4 Mile on Right.”

We’d slow down, pull over, and unload the essentials from our big black Dodge.

My dad would spread a checkered cloth over the table.

My mom would bring out the basket of chicken she’d fried that morning, or a ham baked the night before.

A cooler of ice, a jug of tea, a bowl of potato salad, a jar of dill pickles, a bunch of grapes – and we were all set.

We’d sit down and talk about how many miles we had left to go. We'd look at the farm fields, listen to the wind whispering through the pines, and watch the cars whoosh past.

It was alright.

Now, people have found better ways to spend their busy days. The impatient traveler lacks the time or inclination to prepare food for the road. So instead of looking for a roadside table, he scans the interstate exits for McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Arby’s, Olive Garden, or some similar source of supersized doses of sodium, fat, high-fructose corn syrup and other deadly substances "lovingly" prepared by harried serfs with unwashed hands and bad attitudes.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

Fifty years ago, picnicking was almost a necessity for the budget-minded traveler.

Beyond that, “going on a picnic” was an end in itself, a popular option for family or friends who wanted to spend a leisurely afternoon enjoying fresh air, sunshine and good eats.

Picnicking in Calgary, 1911

What started me thinking about this was a weekend ramble along the Chattooga River. On the East Fork, next to the Walhalla Fish Hatchery is a picnic grounds, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Granted, it was a brisk day, but all the tables were empty.

I’m not someone who craves human company, and that’s doubly true when I’m seeking what I’m seeking in the beautiful places of these mountains. However, I’ll admit feeling pangs of sadness (and a little disgust) when I see picnic areas going unused. Given the current lack of demand for these facilities, they seem ridiculously oversized.

One of my favorites is on Heintooga in the Smokies. Under the towering spruce, you’ll have your choice of tables, and what great tables they are – a massive slab of stone for each table top.

Another historic picnicking image, from the great American photographer, Bunny Yeager

If you escape I-40 at Old Fort and manage to locate the alternate route up the mountain, you might find the roadbed of the abandoned US 70, and you might find the old picnic grounds. Before the interstate, this must have been a popular stop for tourists. Now, you'd have a hard time picturing it full of people, but it is a lovely place.

No, picnicking isn’t dead, but its heyday is long gone. I suspect some astute sociologist has already written about this trend and how it encapsulates so many of the changes we’ve experienced over the past decades. I did manage to find a couple of relevant footnotes in Robert Putnam's 2001 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. According to a survey cited by the author:

…picnics per year among American adults fell from 4.9 per year in 1975 to 2.0 per year in 1999…

Another survey reported a 20 percent decline in picnicking between 1962 and 1982.

But who cares? Unless you’re some misanthrope who resents the 21st century rendition of American society, why would any of this matter to you?

Greater minds have applied themselves to this question, and come up with some interesting answers, as I will explore in a later post.

Until then, here’s a musical interlude on the joys of picnicking:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

High fructose corn syrup is of the devil. Its increasingly widespread use in food is mirrored a few years later by the rise in incidence of coronary artery disease.

OK, the population rate of increase in CAD was multifactorial-but I think HFCS was heavily involved.