Friday, July 3, 2009
I went out today to start beta-testing some surveys that I want to use with motorists at tourist sites, and decided that I would begin at the Upper Pioneer Valley Visitor Information Center in Greenfield, MA. This facility has been open for about a decade, and I've read about it off and on in the Greenfield paper, but this is the first time I've actually been in there. It's a bit tricky to find - you have to get off Interstate 91 or Route 2 (whichever of the nearby big roads you happen to be travelling on), get onto Route 2A, keep a sharp eye out for signs (the main directional sign is partly obscured by a "Left Lane Must Turn Left" sign), then take a smaller side road, sidestep an Applebee's Restaurant, and resist the impulse to turn into a motel parking lot.
Unlike most roadside rest areas, this one - once you manage to find it - has a decidedly local flavor, which is explained in part by the fact that it's funded by the state but operated by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. It's a showcase for beautiful local crafts, and was conceived very much as a gateway point for the local area as much as a pitstop for those on the big roads. Route 2 (a.k.a. the Mohawk Trail), which stubbornly remains two lanes wide west of my own town of Athol, is another reason for this flavor; the visitor center was purposely not sited on Interstate 91 itself so that the Route 2 traffic, especially the fall leaf-peepers, would be more easily able to access it. One motorist was complaining at considerable length to the manager this afternoon about the obscure location and limited hours (it's open 362 days a year, but closes at 5 p.m. every day), but all the other visitors I saw there spent quite a lot of time browsing the shelves and apparently enjoying the ambience.
It occurred to me, in fact, that this facility itself might make a useful entry-point for some ethnographic inquiry. The site seems to challenge the usual "convenience is paramount" model for the roadside rest stop, and to insert some insistent localness (in the form of the somewhat convoluted access route and orientation to Route 2, as well as in its emphasis on local items for sale) into the highway experience. I was talking to people today about their general enjoyment (or otherwise) of the driving experience, and a bit about how fuel prices and other modes of transportation factored (or not) into their decisions about how they were getting to where they were going. There weren't any big surprises in what I was hearing (people really like driving!) but I wonder if asking them about finding the Greenfield Visitor Center might tease out some opinions about the interface between the usual seamlessness of high-speed motor travel and the localness of this site.