What is America?

On July 4th, I found myself in Mountain View, CA.  Though far from home, I celebrated in the traditional American manner – with beer, BBQ, and fireworks.  On this day, thoughts of independence mixed with the silent recognition that my adventure was coming to a close.  So I began to reflect on all that I had seen.  When I set out on my trip, I aimed to discover what our country is really like.  Sitting beside the Google campus and craning my neck upwards to take in the brilliant spectacle, my mind wandered: what, if anything, had I learned?  Below is my answer.  Below is my portrait of America.* 

An obvious disclaimer: my portrait is still incomplete.  While our Sonic roamed across a large swathe of the country, the U.S. is far larger.  Indeed, if the Civil War were still raging, we would have never left the Union.  Add in the limited nature of my interactions with a limited number of people (e.g. I talked to maybe three people in all of Nebraska) and I cannot begin to claim perfect knowledge of my subject.  That being said, from my travels I have determined the following.

America is beautiful.  It might be a tired cliche, but this country possesses so much natural wonder.  People always talk about the Caribbean or the Alps as prime vacation destinations, but there is so much to see stateside.  We have the Badlands, the Tetons, Yosemite Valley – and, of course, the drive to get there.  All have a magic to them and none requires a passport to reach.   

Sunset in Wyoming

Sunset in Wyoming

Love of open space defines rural America.  Prior to this trip, I imagined small towns to be most united by their social values or political ideology.  On closer inspection, however, these characteristics place a distant second to their feelings on open space, which I found to be consistently laudatory across the country.  In Lyons, NY (pop. 5,831) I was told that when you possess property it “feels like you own a piece of the earth”. Residents of Thermopolis, WY (pop. 3,009) could not fathom how urbanites tolerate all the wasted hours sitting in traffic.  And while a friendly woman in LaGrange, IN (pop. 2,625) relished having access to nearby cities, she had no interest in abandoning her small town.  True, some did acknowledge the cities to have comforts and diversions unavailable in their hometowns.  But the benefits provided by open space – having acre(s) to your name; views of unobscured countryside; peace and quiet – far outweighed urbanity in their minds.

We are one Nation under God.  Most vivid in my vault of memories is the wealth of religious imagery I found throughout the country.  Thinking back, I picture spires and crucifixes of all shapes and sizes.  I marvel at the architecture of cathedrals in Albany, South Bend, and Boise.  I hear the rodeo MC’s call to prayer.  But most of all, I see a 30 foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary at Trinity Heights in Sioux City, IA.  The verdict seems quite clear: religion has an incomparable hold on our spirits and on our landscape.

DSCN2154

No place is perfect.  If the road signs are any indication, Oregon has a drinking and driving problem.  If wintry weather doesn’t ruin your day in Chicago, a stray bullet might.  And the glorious Badlands were seriously lacking in creature comforts like mattresses.  Some places are better than others, but if there’s an American Eden out there, I failed to come across it.

Everywhere is different and everywhere is the same.  A weird tension seemed to haunt us throughout our trip.  No doubt, this country is home to an incredible diversity of environments and cultures.  Wholly dissimilar are the quaint New England towns, the vast Great Plains, and the towering Rocky Mountains – not to mention the people who live there.  And yet there was always a sense that our surroundings were manufactured and packaged elsewhere.  Before leaving Boston and starting our trip in earnest, Paul and I paid a visit to the Sam Adams Brewery.  Not expecting to find this brand west of the Mississippi, we savored every drop of our free samples.  But much to our surprise we found the brewer-patriot at practically every stop on our journey.  Also at our trip’s outset, Paul and I made a pact to limit our fast food consumption and a get a taste of local cooking.  We largely held to this but circumstances sometimes forced our hand, whereby I discovered just how far the chains had penetrated.  We ran into Subway in rural Nebraska and KFC in backcountry Wyoming.  Add in suburban sprawl and you produce a recipe for homogeneity so potent that there were stretches of 20 that were indistinguishable from Route 1 back in New Jersey.  I drove due west for nearly a month, and sometimes it felt as if I had never left home.

Find it at a liquor store near you!

Find it at a liquor store near you!

That is what I (think) I learned.  This is what I’ve concluded: I’m more resolved than ever to escape New Jersey.  The Garden State just lacks the simple things, like calm country roads or grocery stores that sell alcohol.  Chicago or Dubuque seem like prime candidates, though when I think about it, any place without jug handles will do.

Hmm.  I suppose wherever that is, I’ll need a car to get there.

After all those miles, I’m ready to hit the road once more.

————————————————————————

And now, at last, come the necessary thank yous.

First off, thank you to everyone who took in Paul and I over the course of this trip.  I don’t know how many of you guys are reading this, but I’m giving individual shout-outs regardless.  Thanks to the Lockwoods, the Clarks, Jamie, Anna, and Natasha.

Thank you to my parents for their support in every sense of the word.  Some parents might have viewed this adventure as putting off post-college adulthood, but they accepted my rationale that I would parlay this experience into material with which to begin a writing career.  I will be forever grateful for this.

Thank you to Paul – you were a fantastic travel companion and are a great friend. Wouldn’t have thought to do this with anyone else.

Finally, thank you to you, the readers.  I am so grateful to everyone who took the time to read my posts and I am especially encouraged by the feedback I have received, making the trip feel even more worthwhile.  Of course, this blog merely marks the beginning of a writing career, and your continued readership would be more than welcome.  In fact, there’s a great new website called In Awe that I’ll be contributing to shortly.  Hope to see you there!

* For the sake of this post, let’s pretend I actually was meditating on this profound question rather than just drunkenly taking in the light show.  It’s more poetic that way.

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3 thoughts on “What is America?

  1. Heidi Just says:

    Hi Steve,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your travels. I really appreciate your comments about how beautiful and how much there is to see right here in America. I’ve travelled when I was younger, Fairly extensive, yet so much more to see….don’t get me wrong I love the adventures. Yet, after I had my son, and traveling is not as easy when you have children, although easier with just one, but I came to realize not to overlook what is in your own backyard and what is free! I remember going hiking in Colorado, Missouri, Vermont, New Hampshire, just to name a few. Again, these are beautiful places…then one afternoon, we hook a walk in our woods. There is a stream and we followed it under the pine trees to see the stream open up to a beautiful, hidden, meadow. My son was so excited. We kept walking back further and learned that years ago the Boy Scouts put in a bridge and we could cross. This bridge brought us to a nearby park with a playground-a little boys dream…along the way we sometimes see swans, geese, deer, we’ve seen a fisher cat once, and we’ve seen raccoon, bobcat and sooner it later we should spot bear footprints. so while we have many beauties in America, they are closer than we sometimes think. For example, in ct, we have 2 beautiful waterfalls. when you’re ready to have a family, you’ll more importantly realize it’s not where you go, but who you are with… That’s the real beauty….

    Again, thanks so much for sharing your experiences…. I’ve enjoyed them tremendously.

    Heidi Just

  2. Hi Steven,
    Good writing. Really enjoyable to read and very easy to just keep going. Good luck with all of your writing, and with the new adventure. Thank you for sharing this with me.
    Cheers,
    Erick (Creative Nonfiction conference)

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