I’ve written before about how sweet I think America is. (In case you forgot: totally sweet.) And I mostly attributed said sweetness to our nation’s unique sense of identity, to the fact that anyone, irrespective of origin, can become an American if he’s willing to embrace our principles and laws, our central philosophy of individual life and liberty. In that sense, America is an idea, and an ideal, alive in anyone who throws on a stars-and-stripes bandana, fist-pumps and yells “AMURRICA!” at passers-by — in his heart.
But much as I hate to half-contradict that earlier column (or wholly contradict it, if you want to be a real negative nancy), there’s another face to American identity, one inextricably tied up in the contours of our transcontinental geography, the land itself, and our uniquely American culture. It was with this in mind that I set out by Jeep from my home in Massachusetts this summer, headed toward the Pacific.
I spent my summer in Monterey, Calif., but the vacation’s highlights were its bookends: the drive out to California across the northern United States and the drive back across the South. I deliberately chose summer in Monterey so I’d have the chance to traverse the country, both because I figured it’d be fun and because, on some level, I thought it was important. I’m gunning to serve my country once I’m out of school, and I thought I ought to get a better feel for that country — after all, there’s only so much you can see standing on the coasts looking in. I spent about a week traveling each way, driving alone or with a wingman, sometimes staying the night at a friend’s, sometimes looking for the seediest, cheapest motel I could find.
It’s tough to imagine the sheer breadth of the United States without seeing it; the physical diversity within the bounds of this nation, even within individual states, speaks of a country that exists on an epic scale. It’s remarkable to drive through the sedate, flattened Wisconsin farmlands into the rolling greenery of Minnesota, and then, only two days later, wrestle a June blizzard, fighting to stay on the road through snow-swept mountains in Wyoming; to drive a rail-straight highway that extends beyond your field of vision through Utah’s silver salt flats and see, beyond the flats at your sides, tremendous ranges of mountains rising from nothing; and to scale the pine-crowned passes in Tahoe, only to arrive at the Pacific, five hours later and 7,000 feet lower, to breathe sea air at spring temperatures. Then, on the return trip, to take a few hours out of a day navigating a scrub-brush plain to see the Grand Canyon, like an inverted mountain range ripped into the otherwise tranquil landscape.
Some of this might strike folks as cornball Americana, but this nation is the only place where you can find out whether you can choke down a two-pound hamburger and its assorted accoutrements (short answer: no) in rural Pennsylvania; look out over the expanse of Lake Michigan as you ride a cab home, slipping between the water on your left and the shining towers of Chicago on the right; stop for grilled cheese in a Wyoming diner where the waitress sees your luggage-stuffed car and assumes you’re heading west to Western Wyoming Community College instead of someplace as foreign as California; and creep along in a pickup truck through Greenwood, Miss., cornfields at four in the morning holding a high-powered rifle (with the safety off through, um, an oversight) after a night of taking down Bud Light tallboys and shooting a Beretta 9mm at empty cans. In Nevada alone, you can see rundown old-people casinos in quiet mining towns like Winnemucca in the state’s north, and, in the south, cross the night horizon and be greeted by a valley webbed with light as Las Vegas lies splayed before you.
As Americans, we’ve been provided with a spectacular endowment, a continent-spanning gallery of geographical and cultural diversity that nonetheless manages to cohere into a real American identity. And I imagine not everyone sets out to admire America’s assets by eating a Natchitoches meat pie at Crawfish Shack #2 in Lousiana, perusing tourist traps like Wall Drug in South Dakota, or passing out on bloodstained, cigarette-burnt sheets in a motel just north of Nashville after eight hours of hard driving. But road tripping out and back across this country, seeing the American countryside and people in extreme close-up, somehow helped me gain the distance and perspective to see that they’re part of a larger picture — and that, square mileage be damned, there’s no country in the world bigger than America.
Sam Heller is a senior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.