In the two weeks since I’ve been back, everybody wants to know, “Did you find America?”
My answer of, “At times, in bits and pieces, at certain moments here and there. She’s slippery, elusive, hard to pin down,” leaves them feeling somehow unfulfilled. I see them squint their eyes, grunt, look away and change the subject.
So perhaps, for their sake and mine, I should attempt to pin down just exactly what I found.
I found not one monolithic America, but a plentitude of smaller Americas, distinct parts where people are influenced by their cultural heritage and the landforms around them. The professors of liberty in new England who trace their roots so easily back to the colonial era. The outdoorsmen of Michigan, Utah, and Colorado whose states offer veritable pleasure palaces for the active. The Native Americans straying from the rolling auburn plains of their reservation to the only saloon in East Glacier, Montana. The international seaport of Seattle with her Pike Place Market serving every craft and cuisine of the Pacific Rim. The immense Bay Area of California sifting her people into their proper places—the urbanites of The City, intellectuals of Berkeley, business travelers of Emeryville. The friendliest folk in the forgotten corner of middle America, Kansas City, MO, whose landscape gives them nothing to brag about. Texas with her wide city sprawls, her wide toothy grins, her wide commitment to the second amendment. The delta land of NOLA and her tourist economy, her perpetual party. Americans react to the landscapes, cultures and climates surrounding them. They preserve tradition while simultaneously modernizing their inheritance.
I found a country racing to keep up with a modernizing and digitizing world. No other issue stretches the seams between generations like computer literacy, smart phones and texting, e-readers and the decline of print, the rise of digital media. People on the train and throughout the cities expressed misgivings over losing the world of paper, ink, and long-term attention spans (have you, reader, even read this far?). Meanwhile, I cued up my smart phone a dozen times a day to steer myself, via foot, bus, subway, bike or car, in the most efficient manner to my destination. Hell, sometimes I didn’t have an exact destination, only a sense that I wanted, say, a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, or a New Orleans poor boy. I’d pull up the navigation app, press the microphone icon, say what I wanted, and all around my current location a cluster of results would appear on the map. With a smart phone, if you can afford the data and remember your charger each day, travel is easy. I can’t remember a time I had to ask for directions.
I found an America searching for a new direction in the debate over gun control. The shootings in Aurora happened in week three of my eight-week trip and spurred a national conversation. Those international travelers I hung out with in Seattle couldn’t fathom how a man could stockpile all those weapons legally while many Americans, including our Seattle tour guide and the Houstonite I met on the train to NOLA, used the example to demonstrate why more Americans need to arm themselves and protect our communities from, well, themselves.
I found a host of Americans puffed up with pride over their home towns. Never did I detrain to a local telling me I might as well get back on the train, there’s nothing happening here. Americans love their cities, love what they’ve built, are proud of the history and heritage, museums and monuments, music and cuisine.
We are a proud people, I found, proud of what we’ve built and what we’ve accomplished worldwide in terms of foreign relations. On home soil, American pride takes the form of political dissent. We know that our government does not operate with efficiency commensurate with a people as resourceful and demanding as ourselves. It seems most Americans—from the Atlantic to the Pacific to Texas—agree that the media obfuscates the real center of American politics, that a vote for the right or the left is a vote for the same big money that landed us in this current down economy, that corporations are not people nor should we consider them so. Americans, especially in this election year, feel helpless to the grips of Big Business and voiceless before the Great Political Machine.
There’s a real sense of desperation out there. Folks can’t believe how many jobs have been shipped overseas, how little a B.A. means these days. Young people are torn between struggling at a vocation that allows self expression and opting for a job in business and industry where individuality is squashed but paychecks and benefits are guaranteed. Of course, older generations want the youth to take the easy route, go for the security, pay ourselves in Medicare and Social Security even though those programs probably won’t around when we go to retire. But the youth yells back, What did you do with our jobs? Where have you sent our opportunities? Why should I contribute to a cause—The Cause—that isn’t mine?
It’s hard not to politicize my journey. All over the country, people on the train insisted on talking politics: with me, with each other, with themselves. However, the political winds must change, and ours is only one day’s condition in the weather patterns of politics. Such is the transitory nature of America and her people. Constantly changing, evolving. But there must be some permanent aspects of the country to suss out, some eternal truths I discovered on my trip.
A more measurable America resides in steadfast clusters of music. We are a people who perform, who go to our instruments, who experiment with and express through sound. Folk and Americana, blues and jazz survive and blend into new forms, sometimes synthesized forms, even while the music industry does its best to commercialize, capitalize, and corporatize American music. There will always exist undercurrents of traditional and innovative music, original compositions played live by those who understand the power of performance, the ability for music to interpret and color experience. I saw it in the subways of NYC, the streets of Portland, the bars of Austin. American music is live and well.
Meanwhile a craft beer revolution is happening across the nation. Some cities have more than others, but every city wants a good craft brewery to ply their people. I went to the Oregon Brewer’s Festival with Pat in Portland and waded among thousands of hop heads high on suds. Then I went to Colorado where craft breweries are a point of pride. And these beers get shipped all across the nation. No longer must we drink the watered-down pilsners of the nation’s leading distributors, but choice is at hand—I.P.A.’s, stouts, red ales, wheats—and our funds go toward artisan brewers, their employees and their families, who take pride in what we drink. It really is a good and time to be a beer drinker in America, despite what less beer-enthused portions of the population might think.
And those detractors from good-time indulgence are plentiful. Salt Lake City’s alcohol laws are so convoluted that I had a half-dozen residents explain them to me and still don’t fully understand. 3.2% max at the grocery. 4% from a tap. At some establishments you must buy a full meal if you want to drink, though bottled beer comes strong, cheap, and local. It’s a religious thing, of course, and America is a decidedly religious country. Mormons and Protestants, Catholics and Baptists, the sects come in great numbers with manifold variations in their beliefs. Perhaps our strength lies in our faith, in our resiliency, in our belief in God’s great design. We are, of course, as the Pilgrims believed, the City on a Hill, the shining example of exceptionalism (notice I didn’t say acceptionalism) for the world to see. Some of us also believe in an impending apocalypse, disavow scientific findings, and punish the land for its ancient beauty and brazenness.
America certainly is a beautiful land. She holds river valleys and mountain ranges, deserts and rain forests, grassy plains and aqua-blue shorelines spotted with islands. The train will haul you along each of these landforms so you can see it for yourself and realize the diverse artistry of geological movements in North America. I think Americans overlook, or purposely ignore, the wealth of beauty we possess. Every American, before traveling to Europe, should set out to view the national parks, the small communities built into gargantuan landmasses, the large cities of America jutting upward and sprawling outward to rival those cities we came from generations ago and the oceans and mountains we traversed to get here.
The story of the American landscape is the story of our people; the history of our train lines reveal so much of our background and heritage. While on this journey, as it must be with every journey, I set out not only to find America, but to find something of myself, something more than the 28-year-old with two degrees in English, a vague sense of spirituality, an admiration for Carl Sagan, a 5-handicap. I found kinship, from not only the friends who put me up (or put up with me) along the way, but from those who helped me prepare, who donated to my campaign, who wished me well and urged me along.
I went to those places in contiguous America that I needed to fill in the gaps of my travel, sink into my writing, and help her come alive. Steinbeck’s premise in Travels with Charley was to rediscover America so he could more properly write about her, her people, and himself as an American. I kept an eye out for storylines and narratives all the way.
I attempted, when rushed travel and hangovers didn’t prevent me, to write three pages a day in my notebook, and I kept a second, smaller notebook handy in my pocket to keep records of the characters and situations I encountered. Whereas I shared with you, reader, some of the great moments and characters of the trip, the brevity and broad-scope of the blogging and my desire to hold the most provocative tales close necessitated that I only tip a card or two, rather than show the whole hand. Now the task becomes even larger, gets even harder, as tomorrow morning I’ll sit down at my desk to initiate the daily practice of writing and attempt to shape my sojourn into a travel memoir.
Thanks for being beautiful. You may proceed.