I’ve been on the road for most of the week driving cross country with my daughter-in-law Rachel from Chapel Hill North Carolina to Palo Alto California where she and my son Jesse are spending the academic year. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and the experience has been overwhelming. Crossing America is a reality check for any one living in the New York bubble. It’s also an incredible visual experience – I write these words from the Grand Canyon. I don’t claim to have had a complete De Tocqueville experience (there is so much more of the country to see), but it has also left a deep impression on me. Here are some preliminary thoughts.
America is a place of contrasts, great beauty and incredible ugliness. Living among the affluent brick and mortar canyons of Manhattan, I was reminded about how modestly most of our fellow citizens live, how many of them so clearly at the margin. America is not the Interstate (on our trip mostly I-40) but off on the roads which intersect it and even more so those that are unconnected. Most people stay in place, many in very small and remote place. They are stuck where they are by both habit and realistic circumstance.
Much of our trip has been through the so-called Red States. We traveled many miles on those smaller roads, primarily to experience the country’s natural beauty – the Blue Ridge and the Smokies, the great deserts of New Mexico and Arizona and today, before starting the final leg, the Canyon. Needless to say we only scratched the surface. What we saw left me speechless. Traveling through the back roads of places like Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas, one is struck immediately by the fact that John Kerry didn’t have a chance in these places. And it isn’t only the liberal politics – Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter shared that, but the obvious disconnect between an aloof patrician and the down to earth people of these areas. One also wonders how George Bush the faux plain country guy whose agenda is so pro big business and special interests could possibly have won their hearts which gives you even greater respect for Karl Rove’s image making machine. Neither man ever had to put only a few gallons of regular in his tank instead of mindlessly filling up high test.
Ah gasoline. Good timing to take to the road with current gas prices, wouldn’t you say? Guess where we found the “cheapest” gas? You got it, Texas. Make of that what you will. I for one am happy about these gas prices because until now the American public has had to pay no price for our elective war in Iraq which, more than Katrina, has caused them to rise. The current spike notwithstanding, they had already more than doubled before the hurricane struck. I couldn’t help thinking of what filling up was costing all those SUVs and PTs (personal trucks) that passed us on the road or what they are costing all those people who park them in the garage of my New York City building. Perhaps this oil shock will wake people up though our government still is playing reckless head-in-the-sand about energy policies. Of course the trouble is that these prices are inflicting tremendous hardship on just the people we saw on those back roads with old inefficient cars and trucks which they depend on so heavily. Not to worry, Bush is not planning to raise the taxes that they probably don’t pay because they live below the poverty level.
Contrasts I suggested was a large part of what we saw. The natural beauty juxtaposed against the flimsy shelters which so many Americans call home. No where was this more poignantly evident than in the spectacular landscape of New Mexico and Arizona Navaho reservations where home is so often a wooden hovel, a dilapidated trailer or some kind of low cost dwelling that was delivered on a truck. Perhaps some reservations in the country have benefited from Casino wealth, but for the most part we have not done well by the Native Americans whose way of life was disrupted by our invasion – the first time we brought democracy to a foreign land.
I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, had many eye opening and wonderful experiences, but this has been one of the best and most instructive. More to come when I recapture my land legs.