Just impressions, no more.
Our first excursion off I-40 took us down the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina and into the Smoky Mountains across the Tennessee border, some of the most beautiful and pristine scenery you’ll find in the southeastern United States. We passed one vista after another each more breathtaking than the one before. Exiting all this peaceful beauty you find yourselves shocked back into some sort of horrendous reality as you pass immediately through a little strip of land called Pigeon Forge which probably can only be described as a very low rent Las Vegas (or at least what I imagine Las Vegas to be). One after another are a series of honky-tonk amusement parklets (they are too small to be called parks), “as seen on TV” shops and eating or sleeping establishments where you would unlikely want to break bread or rest your head. The contrast between the natural beauty you have feasted upon and human made trash that sits at its edge is a real metaphor for the worst of what we humans have done to our planet. It’s not a pretty picture.
The same can be said of the Interstate itself which, while not without some very beautiful and unspoiled stretches, generally is a tribute to the “Fast Food Nation” and Motel 6 world that we have become. It wasn’t easy to find fresh vegetables or fruit or to avoid fat laden fare without really trying on this voyage across the land of plenty. Homogenized is probably the right way to describe it and, were it not for maps, changing license plates and the new time zones recorded on our cell phones it was often hard to distinguish one state or region from another. Hard to distinguish except for the changing landscape, the hints of beauty that continually drew us off the Interstate and into the real world that lay beyond.
Without dismissing the lush green mountains of the more easterly areas, I for one was taken most by the western deserts, landscapes that prevail in New Mexico, Arizona and into California. I had a taste of them some years back when visiting Scottsdale and Sedona, but this was a ten course meal. The colors and the vistas, the natural and at times surreal rock formations, the openness (thanks in part to the fact that reservations are protected land) and the magnificent unspoiled starkness of it all. We saw the excavated remnants of Chaco Culture with buildings dating back more than a thousand years, a reminder that despite our puffed up self importance, something of great substance was here long before Columbus triggered the Europeanization of the continent bringing our “culture” to the “savages”. We took in the Grand Canyon which reminds you that this planet is millions of years old, etched out of primordial waters. So much for the thousands of years claimed by the Intellegent Design folk just because Genesis claims it's so.
Perhaps what is most striking about what one sees beyond the grandeur of the landscape is the human condition. The fact that so many of our fellow citizens are in such dire straights is inescapable, and equally so that civilization often shows a very destructive face, trashing not enhancing the earth it finds. It gives meaning to the campaign slogans decrying tax cuts for the rich and humanly created global warming. Evidences of both abuses are right there before your eyes, not in mouthed platitudes but with human faces and spoiled landscapes. What is also striking is how much more respect those in the center seem to have for the land, especially shared public land, than do we coastal folk. The first trash we saw roadside (reminiscent of back home) was when we hit California – the other places even on I-40 are amazingly clean. To be sure there was lot’s of trash and broken down cars and machinery around those hovels people call home, but that speaks more to their misery than to a lack of respect. Perhaps these scraps can be recycled in the future. Peerhaps carting that stuff off is just too expensive or too low on the priority list when survival is the order of the day.
I don’t pretend to really know the America we saw on this trip. We were just passing through. We ate in some local places walked some local paths, but we were visitors on our way to some place from some place. We were onlookers not participants. Perhaps all my impressions are off the mark, but I wouldn’t trade the experience and can only hope to expand upon it in the years to come.