Leno, Wall Drug, and amber waves of grain: Media lessons of flyover America

I just got back from a five-day, 2,400-mile road trip across the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Southwest. For the most part, it was a remarkably media-free trip. My total consumption between Milwaukee and Los Angeles was one free hotel copy of USA Today, two episodes of This American Life via podcast, half an hour of televised football, 200 pages of a novel, and 35 hours of recorded music. And billboards. Lots and lots of billboards.

But it's always good to get a fresh perspective. Without the usual steady feed of newspapers, magazines, blogs, Daily Show clips, Tweets and Facebook status updates, I noticed a few things that might otherwise have escaped my attention. Below, my lessons from the road.
1. Advertising works. As soon as you cross from western Minnesota into eastern South Dakota, you begin to see the billboards for Wall Drug. They're just ordinary handpainted signs depicting cowboys or dinosaurs. Some of them advertise five-cent coffee or free icewater. The only really remarkable thing is their frequency. By the time you actually get to Wall, South Dakota, some 300 miles west on I-90, you've probably seen a hundred of them.

As a New York City sophisticate, I'd like to think I'm immune to such brute-force tactics. I'm not. Somewhere between Mitchell (home of the Mitchell Corn Palace, the world's largest monument built entirely from corn) and the Badlands, I went from thinking, "What's the big deal about Wall Drug?" to thinking, "Whoa. This Wall Drug must really be something."

It's not. For the record, Wall Drug is a giant tchotchke store with a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, and a really awful animatronic T. Rex. It's not worth getting off the highway for, much less planning a trip around. But since I was already there, I bought some fudge, some buffalo jerky, and a chunk of quartz. Sucker. (See this related feature on Wall Drug and other weird tourist traps.)

2. Advertising doesn't work. The breathtaking splendor of Arches National Park in Utah made me think, naturally, about Jay Leno. "When does his new show debut, again?" I asked my traveling companion, Josh, who works in the entertainment business.

"Jay Leno has a new show?" he replied. So much for Stuart Elliot's belief, as he noted in The New York Times, that anyone who doesn't know about Leno's move to 10 p.m. "must be in a coma, in hiding, or named Letterman." That's $10 million well spent.

3. Don't throw away those paper maps just yet. We did most of our navigating using Google Maps on Josh's iPhone. This worked great -- except in the vast stretches of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado where the iPhone got no service. These tend to be the exact places where you don't want to get lost, as there's also nowhere to gas up, and no one to ask for directions.

4. The iTrip, on the other hand, works great there.
I've relied on this Griffin Technologies doodad, which lets you play your iPod over your car radio, on several road trips. It's pretty frustrating to use in the Northeast, where there are just too many radio stations clustered too closely together; you have to constantly retune to find the pure static the iTrip requires to function properly. But in the vast, mountainous wastes of the West, it's perfect.

5. The real Deadwood is less exciting than the HBO version.
But it does have $2 blackjack tables, which is nice.

6. In-N-Out Burger is really, really good. That's not strictly a media observation, but it deserves comment.

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