It’s a drive-thru life during the pandemic

Fanciful creatures are hidden in the rows of corn stalks at Sever’s Festival Grounds in Shakopee. There’s a goose with moose antlers, a tiny fox and a field mouse with fairy wings. Along with silly rhymes and jokes (“Guess who? Chicken tutu”), there are signs that caution ticket holders to […]

Fanciful creatures are hidden in the rows of corn stalks at Sever’s Festival Grounds in Shakopee. There’s a goose with moose antlers, a tiny fox and a field mouse with fairy wings.

Along with silly rhymes and jokes (“Guess who? Chicken tutu”), there are signs that caution ticket holders to stay in their vehicles and keep speeds below 3 mph.

The latest attraction from the Sever family, known for its giant corn maze, is an “adventure you can explore from the safety of your car.” It’s designed for people who may not feel comfortable navigating a corn maze during the pandemic, but want to take part in some sort of fall tradition.

Pull ahead, please: Much of life is being viewed from behind a windshield these days.

The Minnesota State Fair Food Parade gave would-be fairgoers a taste of the Great Minnesota Get-Together. The Dinosaur Adventure traveling exhibit retooled its animatronic show to be seen from a car. On the horizon? Drive-through holiday light shows.

For many, car-based entertainment is safe, creative and nostalgic — a throwback to Americans’ earlier love affair with the automobile that sparked giant marvels from Minnesota’s Paul Bunyans to the Big Fish sculpture in Bena.

Others, however, see drive-throughs as unsatisfying, poor replacements for the real thing, or worse: divisive, hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists and creating barriers between people.

“We’re social animals. But what suffices as ‘social’?” said Peter Norton, the author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.” “We can gather in cars, which automatically enforce distancing and which insert protective barriers between us. We can gather together safely online. But it can’t be the same.

“Sociability includes physical closeness and occasional touch. Even just a handshake or a hand on a shoulder can be so expressive. We can’t have that online or in cars.”

During the pandemic, drive-through options are being embraced because they make it possible to participate, at least somewhat, in familiar rituals.

Most years, Mindy Anderson knows exactly where she’ll be on opening day of the State Fair — on the fairgrounds, with her mom, celebrating her mom’s birthday. When she learned that the fair was canceled but there was going to be a drive-through food parade, she was determined to get tickets.

“I was like, ‘We’re going! On your birthday! Strap on your feed bag and lets do this!’ ” she said.

Anderson, who lives in Forest Lake, ended up piling into her parents’ minivan with her mom and dad, her best friend and her boyfriend. While she enjoyed the food (“We ate at every booth except for two!”), she missed being part of the crowd.

“It was different,” she said. “I like being part of the people with the State Fair. So having it in the car … Right now, how it is, you have to get creative.”

That kind of creativity has lured even the most cautious to get out of the house and do something — even if they don’t get out of the car.

Carissa Espey said her family has been “very COVID-cautious,” staying away from most group activities. But the St. Paul woman and her two daughters attended the Dinosaur Adventure exhibit. Despite a traffic jam at the entrance and a nearly two-hour wait, her girls thought weaving through the roaring dinosaur figures was “the coolest thing,” and didn’t want it to end.

High and low lights

Experiencing life via automobile has long been a part of America. But the evolution of car culture has had a lot of “twists and turns,” said Norton, who is an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society.

Before 1920, cars weren’t a necessity. They were a way for middle- and upper-class Americans to get out to the countryside or travel to other leisure destinations. In fact, personal vehicles were called “pleasure cars,” Norton said.

In the decades that followed, car ownership became more common. New ways to experience life from behind the wheel began to flourish — from “auto camping” in the 1920s, to motels, drive-in restaurants and drive-in movies in the 1930s. That’s when roadside attractions and giant statues (including Bemidji’s 1937 Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox) began looming over the highways.

By the 1960s and 1970s, drive-through fast food began to take the place of carhops, and cars were ubiquitous.

Our love affair with the car was also fueled by auto manufacturers, real estate developers and state and federal policies, which ended up making it necessary for many people to own a car in order to eat, work or play.

Those same factors played a role in economic inequality and racial segregation. During the growth of suburban America, the development of highway projects gave mostly white drivers from the suburbs access to the city, but often fractured or demolished urban neighborhoods.

“When the suburbanites accepted this invitation to drive through the communities that these projects had devastated, they often took with them the distorted sense of threat that is an enduring legacy of racism,” Norton said. “And the car was the ideal PPE for this threat, taking the form of the windows rolling up and the door locks clicking at the red traffic lights of urban America.”

The very real threat of the coronavirus has us racing back into our cars. And there’s no sign of the drive-through trend slowing.

Drive-in movies, drive-through restaurants and Sunday drives to roadside attractions or architectural gems are seeing a resurgence. And we’re becoming more comfortable with drive-in concerts, church services and even doctor visits.

Restaurant chains like Chipotle (with its “chipotlanes”) and Shake Shack are creating or expanding to-your-car delivery.

Car culture has yet another acknowledged social cost: Kids are walking much less than their parents or grandparents did. And, in many places, it feels impractical and unsafe to be an adult without a car, Norton added.

“The extreme example — but a common one — is the person on foot in a paved suburban expanse where, to get a cup of coffee, they may have to walk to a drive-through window. In some places the pandemic is exacerbating this effect,” he said.

When Eric Dregni, author of “Minnesota Marvels: Roadside Attractions in the Land of Lakes,” had relatives visiting from Norway several years ago, he had an idea.

“We thought, ‘Hey, what if we do an entire day in our car, just to be as American as possible?’ ” he said.

They went to as many drive-in locations as they could, from a bank to a coffee place to a restaurant, “drive-in everything,” he said. “They were horrified.”

 

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