Drive-Thu, or Road Trip America: Drive Through
Consider the Drive-Thru. Probably no other phenomenon is more directly connected to three American cultural love affairs of the second half of the 20th century.
- Love of the automobile;
- Love for speed; and
- Love of convenience.
The “restaurant” concept of the Drive-Thru directly evolved from the Drive-In, and both were probably started in the 1920s by a chain of Texas restaurants called “Pig Stand.” (and here). Like the Drive-Thru, the Drive-In restaurant was built to provide speed and accommodate cars and laziness, er, ah, convenience: waiters and waitresses, carhops, would zip back-and-forth from cars with orders, then return to the customers in their cars with the food orders, often on roller-skates. The tasks of getting to and from cars – for taking and delivering of orders – required extra staff and time. Changing from Drive-In to Drive-Thru reduced the employee count … and was faster.
Fast Food became even faster. Pig Stand moved west to the LA-area where the drive-in and drive-thu ideas were picked up by In-n-Out Burger. That was followed by McDonald’s, Jack-in-the-Box, and … well, the rest is history. Drive-Thru is ubiquitous in the food serving industry. [* With current trends, using the Drive-Thru at Mickie-D’s might be your best chance to interact with an actual person; however, you still have to keep your butt in the car]
In early 2020 the use of Drive-Thru food service got a big bump from the SARS-CoV-2 corona virus pandemic. (and here).
But it’s not just restaurants that provide fast Drive-Thru service. It’s been applied for uses both common and unusual. We can use Drive-Thru at a bank, to get coffee, liquor, covid and flu inoculations and testing. In some locales you can vote via Drive-Thru. There are also Drive-Thru legal, wedding and funeral services. (although these are often labeled Drive-Through, not Thru.)
The market evolves to meet the demand of the consumer.
I wondered a bunch about the Drive-Thru lately. Near our residence are two franchises that serve chicken in different ways. Both are extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that the concepts of “quick and convenient” are almost completely lost; their Drive-Thru queues are almost always so long that they back up beyond the drive-thru access lanes and out into the street. With such demand I question whether it’s even economical for the customer. Still, it’s convenient and virus safe: patrons don’t leave their cars.
I also wondered why it is acceptable to spell it “thru” and not the standard “through.” It has been spelled that way from the beginning (“convenience”) of the drive-thru, and it’s been used so dominantly that “Thru” (as in: Drive-Thru) is now the AP Style accepted form (although fuddy-duddies like Webster still prefer “through”).
[The spelling of “through” is obviously awkward – especially for non-native English speakers – and has a twisted history. I’m considering going with “thru” for everything, even as a self-confessed traditionalist. In fact, “thru” is much closer to the original spelling, and obviously more phonetically correct.]
I further wonder if our preference for convenience and driving-thru contributes to our nation’s embarrassing weight issues. 42% of US adults are obese; 20% of adolescents. During the Covid-19 lock-downs the U.S. obesity rate went up 3%.
Still, I want to touch on the Drive-Through as well. That is: why do we Americans – with our fascinations with cars, speed and convenience – simply Drive-Through those larger states with many straight-line boundaries – in Flyover Country? Have we convinced ourselves that they are boring? Have nothing to offer? Are simply in the way? In the way of our accustomed speed and convenience?
“Oh, you actually drove to Chicago? Wow, how long did it take?”
“About 14 hours. There was a little construction along the way.”
“Must have been annoying. Last summer we made it in only 12 hours. Just stopped to pee and get gas.”
There’s lots to experience and see in Flyover Country, take it from Forbes.
We hear quite often that Kansas, for example, is flat and boring. Simply not true on both counts. Kansas has many rivers flowing thru it. One is very significant: the Arkansas River (which does not rhyme with “Kansas River”). All these flow downhill and generally from west-to-east, away from the Rocky Mountains and into the great Mississippi-Missouri river system. And, as they each trace their own paths, they must be separated by hills and ridges. So, obviously Kansas is not flat. Chicago? Now that’s flat.
Kansas is only the 8th flattest state in the US, significantly outranked in the flatness scale by the likes of Florida, Louisiana and Illinois. [Astounding, but Colorado, with its impressive spine of Rocky Mountains is the 26th most flat state – owing largely to its huge expanse of prairie grasslands that comprise the eastern one-third of its land]
Kansas? Boring? Plenty of history and sites, if one is curious and takes some time to not simply “Drive-Through.” With a clever play on words, Kansas bills itself as “The Land of Ahs.”
Learn about the life and times of one of the 20th century’s important leaders. In Concordia visit the National Orphan Train Museum; learn about the hundreds of thousands of youths from east-coast squalor who grew up in clean air and agricultural villages. About a steam ship that took off along America’s great inland highway (the Missouri river) with many tons of goods.
In 1856 the “side wheeler” riverboat SS Arabia embarked from Kansas City to make an ordinary river run, laden with over 200 tons of goods for the growing cities of Omaha and Council Bluffs. 200 tons is a lot. It included elegant chinaware. Utensils. Nails. Champagne. Evening gowns and night gowns. Pickles. You name it, it was on the Arabia.
Upriver, where the Missouri forms the boundary between Kansas and Missouri,it hit a snag, reports were it was a sycamore tree. Not uncommon. Hundreds of river boats sank on America’s inland highways in the 19th century … along the Ohio, the Mississippi and others, as well as the Missouri.
The Arabia sank quickly into the mud with no loss of life. Just those 200 tons. Over the decades the river changed course and the Arabia, some 50 feet deep, ended up in a corn field over ½ mile from the river. Four adventurers heard about the Arabia and set out to find her in 1987. In 4-1/2 months they found her. They then succeeded in recovering nearly all of the product and a few parts of the boat (engine and bow) and turned it all into a simply amazing private museum located in downtown Kansas City (Missouri).
A boy, the 3rd of seven born to his parents, was brought up in a small agricultural plains’ city “on the wrong side of the railroad tracks” in Abilene, Kansas. His mother, a strong anti-war Mennonite, made sure he learned how to do a few things for himself before moving on in life: cook, sew, play piano, dance. His life’s path took him to the US Military Academy. The path also led him to San Antonio, Texas, where he met a lass also from the heartland. Her family had since moved to Denver, Colorado and thus started a great love story and one of the most perfect power marriages in history. He not only fell in love, but he also fell in love with Colorado.
You can learn all this and much, much more by visiting the boyhood home and the library of Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower: the man who led the Allied forces to victory in Africa and Europe, and served two-terms as president while keeping the cold war “cold”, ending the Korean War, greatly reducing the size of our military and its expense, handling the press with cool blather, sending the military (101st Airborne) to integrate Little Rock Central High, while ignoring much advice to use nuclear weapons.
On a single afternoon side trip through Kansas, you can see the monument at the geographic center of the 48 contiguous United States (near Lebanon, Kansas); learn about the transport of hundreds of thousands of destitute and orphaned youth to rural America from the 1850s to the 1920s at the National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia; and even stop to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City.
Flyover Country has even become a vacation destination, especially since the Covid lockdowns. Whether “driving through” or settling in one spot for a few days, you’ll find a lot to see and do, if you take the time.
A different side trip and you can see and experience the streets of Dodge City, the setting for Gunsmoke, one of the most successful TV shows in American history. Then “get the heck out of Dodge”, while recalling that one of the show’s most enduring characters, Doc Adams, was based on the Kansas doctor, Samuel Crumbine. He’s the first to promote flyswatters to kill flies in order to hinder the spread of disease (until him they were simply perceived as a mild nuisance); and many other public health movements to fight tuberculosis. Can you believe we used (shared) public drinking cups until Crumbine preached against it?
Speaking of Ike, get off the main road (I-80) in Iowa just a bit and head to the town of Boone, to see where Mamie (with the bangs), the most perfect wife possible for him, was born. Although “I like Ike” was a popular saying in the ‘50s, everyone loved Mamie. Near Boone you can also learn of the heroism of a teen lass named Kate Shelley, and see the New Kate Shelley Bridge.
In central Missouri, wander a few miles off I-70 to the small town of Fulton to learn about another great leader of the 20th century. In 1946 he gave a speech at a small college there; a speech from whence we got the term “Iron Curtain.” The term was so important during the Cold War decades, that the school, Westminster College, built a museum honoring the man and his visit. That man was Winston Churchill. It’s now the country’s National Churchill Museum.
Stirring stuff in fly-over country. There’s just a bit more space between all the sites than we’d like. Not convenient or fast. But fulfilling.
I hope that our cultural cravings for speed and convenience in both food and in travel have not become metaphoric for how we live our lives. Are we racing from point to point? Eager for professional advancement? To get to the next meeting, or soccer game, or community meeting? Everything on the clock? Even on vacations we tend to fill the day’s schedules full of things to do, see, eat. Rush, rush, rush.
I recommend taking the road less traveled and going a little slower, as often as possible. How? By simply not “driving-through” our lives, and instead by following the very old admonishment to “Take time to stop and smell the roses”, which is, in fact suppose, a metaphor itself (and a very good one). Setting aside time in your life to enjoy and appreciate things small and large that are not connected to achievement and success has been shown to be very healthy.
Take some time. Go into the restaurant and meet some people, including the ones serving you. They have lives and interests too. Get off the main highway at the next roadside attraction; or just plan on going to visit a few. Life is wonderfully full of special moments to enjoy if we’re not simply “Driving-thru” and “Driving-Through.”
Wishing you the best
Joe Girard © 2023
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Author’s notes (footnotes follow):
 Kansas is named for the Kaw Nation. (Which also goes by Kanza).