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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Gertrude Stein was right

By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003

Chesapeake, Va. — By the dateline above, you might think that there is actually a place called Chesapeake. Well, there isn't.

I have been here for most of November, covering the trial of alleged sniper Lee Malvo and now and then that of his co-accused and now-convicted John Muhummad, and I was in roughly these same parts last year about the same time too, when the pair was allegedly shooting up the area, and believe me, if there was a there anywhere for 80 kilometres around here, I would have found it.

Gertrude Stein famously didn't find one in Oakland, Calif., either, and thus came up with her famous description of the place: "There is no there there." I've been to Oakland too, and concur. The truth is that the anonymous, homogenuous suburbs are all the same, interchangeable one with the other, and that this is bloody Middle America, like it or not.

Weeks ago, I rented a car at the airport in Norfolk and found my way to my hotel with fair success, but every day since has been an adventure. The courthouse where Mr. Malvo's trial is going on is but 15 minutes away, but it has taken me upwards of an hour to find it, even longer to return, and for the first 10 days, never was I able to take the same route twice.

I grant you I am notoriously bad with directions, but even so, the fault is not all mine. There are no landmarks, anywhere.

My hotel is near a YMCA, and for a time I thought it would serve as one, but no, there are other YMCAs about, and they look just the same. My hotel is around the corner from a Taco Bell too, but even I knew enough not to try to find my way home by using it; there are Taco Bells every half-mile. Ditto the shopping mall, the Target, the Barnes and Noble, the Sears, the Starbucks, the Hampton Inn, the Holiday Inn, the Red Roof Inn, the car dealerships, the Home Depot, the Best Buy, the Toys 'R Us, the Olive Garden, the huge Rite-Aid drive-in pharmacy.

All these are stores that could be of help for a stupid urban creature trapped in suburbia were they not repeated so often, in a well-groomed landscape that is uniformly flat and new and in the main treeless and always the same, that they are rendered utterly useless.

The highways are no better.

Interstate 64, for example, runs roughly north-south from Norfolk to Chesapeake, but it is always identified as an east-west road, and in my experience, no matter from which approach one is coming, 64 East is the only one which actually works and gets you where you want to go.

The other day, while traveling from Virginia Beach, where Mr. Muhammad's trial took place, back to Chesapeake, I was heading directly west, yet the road I wanted was 64 East. Against every instinct, I got on 64 East, and against all common sense, it was the right one. Yet 64 East is also the right road to take when traveling north from Chesapeake to Norfolk.

How is this possible? How do the people who live here ever find their way about? Is this why commuting is such a tortuous exercise — it's not the actual drive that takes the toll or the time, because nothing is really very far away from anything else, but rather that you have to build into every single trip the getting-lost and the U-turns and the moments when you burst into tears?

These are all ostensibly seaside, or close-to-seaside, communities: Norfolk is home to the biggest naval base in the world; Virginia Beach is a real vacation destination, and Chesapeake takes its name from Chesapeake Bay.

But there is no sea, not really.

I went in search of it last weekend, took 64 East north and then actually east, and found myself first in the eerily unpopulated "downtown" of Norfolk, where recorded music plays out of speakers along empty streets (empty because everyone is inside, in a new mall, which has tons of parking), and then, further east, on Ocean View Avenue, which manages to run along the Bay without affording a view of any actual water.

Then, of course, I took 64 East south, and west, back to Chesapeake.

I would like to report that I have consoled myself with lovely fish dinners at cunning American cafes, but it isn't true. There is much fish advertised in local restaurants, but since these are in the main the aforementioned chain joints (Olive Garden, Joe Crab's, Ruby Tuesday, and a host of others), it is so blandly cooked, so covered with hideous sauces, and served in such enormous portions that it might as well be rabbit, because it too tastes like chicken, or something else that is inoffensive, odorless and white-fleshed.

I have no real clue what I have been eating, only that whatever it is, I have been eating a lot of it.

To combat this, I have been running most mornings before going to court.

What follows is now my route:

I run along two monstrously busy roads out of my hotel, into traffic, because there are no sidewalks and I wish to stay alive.

When I hit Providence Road, I then run along it because it is the only road I have discovered with a sidewalk.

Amusingly, at each intersection, this sidewalk has beautifully cobblestoned ramps, presumably for people with disabilities, who I further presume come rolling out of vans from the nearby highways in order to spin about, glamourously, on the ramps, and are then collected by the vans. There is certainly no other way in hell that anyone in a wheelchair could get to or from the lone stretch of sidewalk which sits in its splendid isolation.

So I run along the sidewalk one way for the three kilometres it lasts, and then do the three kilometres back. I dare not take a detour on any of the side roads for fear I will get irrevocably lost, though I do use a little loop through an older subdivision where there lives, in a corner house, a baby corgi for whom I shamelessly have fallen head over heels.

Recently, I met the corgi's owners, a nice couple who persist in believing that I am a Canadian television reporter, though I have twice told them I work for a newspaper, and whose final words to me are always, "What station is it you work for?" They are almost as preposterously friendly as their dog.

I love Americans, and always have. I admire the openness of their justice system and the fierce patriotism born of the miraculous way that whatever their race or origin, they identify themselves first and always as Americans.

But for the life of me, I do not understand how so many of them live where they do, or eat what they eat, or how on earth they actually have time to work, or walk a dog, or do anything other than negotiate their way from pillar to post along highways like 64 East, all things to all people, all the time.

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