The popular recent bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds championed the virtues of collective wisdom and opinion. Its author, James Surowiecki, drew on sociology, decision-making theory and studies of market dynamics to argue that the decisions of the many are usually more robust than the decisions of the one. Where the book falls down, in my opinion, is in its failure to explain how the online reviews of the 360 Truck Stop in Amelia Courthouse, Virginia can be so uniformly positive, when the place itself is such an irredeemable pit.
We walked for 21 miles today, along a stretch of highway with no back-road alternatives and little to see but heavy traffic and dense woods. We pinned our meagre hopes of pleasure on a late lunch at the 360, near the end of our day’s walk. After 16 largely joyless miles, we trudged in to be greeted by a surly, fifty-something waitress. She had clearly spent the better decades of her life here, surrounded by dingy Seventies décor and serving food to truckers, and wasn’t about to come to terms with her lot now. I deployed every Grant shrug and Cowell wink in my British arsenal, but she was not to be charmed.
Every dish came with a choice of two vegetables from a selection of options – potato salad, coleslaw, apple sauce, French fries – that all fell just short of actual vegetablehood. My steak was an unusual cut largely composed of sphincter and hoof. Nat, an online reviewer, who one assumes by now has been committed to a secure mental facility, described the 360 as “his favourite restaurant in all the world”. Being British, and not wishing to make a fuss, naturally we tipped lavishly.
We had high hopes at the start of the walk of avoiding the big chains and seeking out local diners and Mom & Pop restaurants. But after a week of execrable meals at local places, and pretty good food at the chains, we’ve changed our tune. The large portions, low prices and rich sauces for which US restaurant chains are famous may have converted two-thirds of the population into obese, car-bound waddlers, but for two cheapskate hikers covering the better part of twenty miles a day, they’re ideal.
We’ve become intimately familiar with the menus and specials at Applebee’s, Arby’s, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, Hardee’s, IHOP, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday, Taco Bell, TGI Friday’s, Waffle House, Wendy’s and innumerable other chains. We’ve been thriving on steaks the size of plates, pizzas the size of small dinner tables and bottomless sodas, and eating with the abandon of people who usually have fifteen miles to walk before their next snack. Despite this catastrophic diet, however, we’re both losing weight, though there are probably better ways to do it than to walk across a continent.
Not that the chains are perfect: they all seem to be attached to a shopping mall, and surrounded by a substantial car park; they almost all have at least a dozen televisions, all showing a different basketball game; they often involve a wait for a table, which when dripping with sweat and carrying a large backpack isn’t pleasant for us or the other patrons; and their menus seem mandated by law to describe at least six dishes as ‘zesty’ and at least two ingredients as ‘fork-tender’. But, we’ve concluded, ‘fork-tender salmon’ beats overdone cow sphincter every day of the week.