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View from the USA: American psyche

A Minneapolis mall offers a virtual reality ride across the US — a fitting symbol of how far the American dream has come without actually going anywhere

View from the USA: American psyche
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Shopping malls give me panic attacks. Spending the afternoon in a white box with nothing but muzak, bright lights and advertising is like inviting me to lunch in a padded cell. Sure I can come, but don’t blame me if I start screaming. I’m a commando shopper. I don’t browse, I bee-line. They call it retail therapy; I call it credit card waterboarding.

But then I discovered the Mall of America. At 5.6 million sq ft, enormous doesn’t quite do this Minneapolis behemoth justice. Forty million people come here annually — more than the population of Canada. Spend five minutes inside each of its 520-plus stores and you’d be shopping for more than 43 hours straight. By all accounts, I should have been foaming at the mouth. But I loved it in the way that we love spicy food that hurts or that annoying song we can’t stop singing. And here’s why: the Mall of America isn’t really about shopping, it’s about an experience; and that says something about how this country has been changing.

For starters, there’s a theme park inside. I’m not talking about a dinky Thomas the Tank Engine train for toddlers, I’m talking multiple loop-the-loop, have-an-accident-in-your-pants roller coasters inside the actual mall. Log flumes splash past the window as you’re buying your undies; the Ferris wheel keeps popping up in front of the third-floor changing room. And that’s not all: dotted around the belly of this wallet-sucking beast are flight simulators, go-kart tracks, crazy golf courses, comedy clubs, a museum and posh hotel; there’s even a 1.3-million-gallon aquarium with a walk-through tunnel leading visitors through a school of razor-toothed sharks.

The mall is so big that you can take an actual orienteering course inside it; there are two 405ft zip-lines stretching from end to end (until you’ve browsed while dangling 60ft in the air, you really haven’t shopped at all). At one point, I found an entire zone dedicated to virtual reality: one minute I was rescuing a kitten from the edge of a skyscraper, the next I was being chased by zombies in a haunted hospital. Just an ordinary stroll down the shops. 

But it made me think too: America is the capitalistic Pablo Escobar. It pushes consumerism and the world snorts it up. We’ve become like a mythical, insatiable beast doomed to feast forever and forever be hungry. But our appetite is changing. I saw it in Portland, Oregon, where independent food trucks have chased fast food joints out of town; I saw it in Austin, Texas, where local boutiques trump international brands. I see it in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, where the guy that manages to stick his entire 6’3” frame into a 2ft box draws a bigger crowd than the sale across the road. The mall is a microcosm for that change too. The American Dream of shiny new things — that 1950s ‘Leave it to Beaver’, fantasy in which progress and convenience translate to happiness and fulfilment — is dead. We no longer define ourselves by what we own, but by the memories we forge. We want life, not products to discard and upgrade. 

That’s how I ended up soaring across the country. The Mall of America’s premier attraction is FlyOver America, a kind of futuristic movie experience in which viewers are dangled in front of a wrap-around IMAX screen, with smells, breeze and ocean spray pumped in. I caught the scent of pine above the forests of Shenandoah; I felt the frost on my cheeks in the far reaches of Alaska’s northern tundra, sweet coconut mist on the lush volcanic shores of Hawaii.

It reminded me how vast, varied and absolutely amazing this country is. But when I stepped off the ride, I was still in that white box, with muzak and advertising, bright lights and a light wallet. The American dream is changing, but unless we’re careful, we’ll build our new castles inside the prisons of old. The new consumerism may be all about experience, but the real thrill is still outside the door. And it doesn’t cost a penny. exploreminnesota.com  minneapolis.org  marriott.com/minneapolis

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)