|July 5, 2006|
See the USA in Your Chevrolet. Or Prius. Or Hummer. But See It.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Recently, there's been a lot of high talk about constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and gay marriage. There's even, I'm told, a movement to amend the Constitution to forbid white people wearing baseball caps backwards, unless you play catcher on a major, minor or Little League team.
Okay, I made that last one up -- but I'm for it.
Actually, I do have my own constitutional amendment to propose. For a long time I've believed that every American citizen should be required by law to travel across the entire mainland United States at least once. By car. With friends or family.
If you can survive that, you can survive anything the remaining two-thirds of the Axis of Evil are ready to throw at us. Not only will you learn a lot about the geography and people of this country, you might even get some further clues as to why you should care about this nation and that for which it stands -- or should stand, at least.
In July 1975, my friends Steve, Wes and I set out for California from Worcester, Massachusetts. Steve had just gotten a job with a public relations firm in San Francisco. They said the company would pick up gas and tolls if he wanted to bring his car west.
Over the first two days we rocketed across the eastern and midwestern parts of the country with which we were most familiar; stopping the first night in South Bend, Indiana, the second in Worthington, Minnesota, a town where the old-time, born again evangelist Billy Sunday, a former pro ballplayer, pitched fire and brimstone at his famous tent meetings.
After that, we took it more slowly. The requisite car breakdown occurred just outside Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the world-renowned Corn Palace. This allowed us ample time to contemplate the thousands of bushels of corn, grain and grass that adorn the exterior of what is, let's face it, the biggest outdoor bird feeder on the planet.
It was also in South Dakota that we picked up our other passenger, Bill Van Etten Casey, an incorrigible and curmudgeonly Jesuit scholar, editor of The Holy Cross Quarterly. A friend of the Berrigan brothers and admirer of the postprandial cognac, he would quote the Irish poet Gerard Manley Hopkins without the slightest provocation. So with Casey yacketing away, we drove through the Black Hills and paused at Mt. Rushmore, passaged the austere Badlands and paid our respects in Deadwood at the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
We experienced the good, the bad and the ugly, like the landscape ripped open by strip-mining in and around Gillette, Wyoming, a gruesome sight. Last year, 390,000,000 tons of coal were clawed from the ground there, a third of the nation's coal production. Proudly, Gillette calls itself "America's answer to OPEC."
Balance that with the glories of Wyoming's Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, not counting my sleepless night at the overbooked Old Faithful Inn in a tiny closet with a single bare light bulb and the mosquito equivalent of the Eighth Air Force. Actually, it was worth it. One morning, we even managed to roust ourselves at dawn to witness an inspirational sunrise over the mountains at Jackson Lake, punctuated by the calls of moose and elk. And Casey.
From there it was Idaho: Sun Valley and Boise; Nevada: Winnemucca and Reno; and California: Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and on to San Francisco. In 12 days, we managed to hit 14 states and travel more than 3000 miles. We felt the gradual changes in topography, climate and radio stations; altitude and attitude. In San Francisco, we saw the burgeoning of Gay Pride, while in Wyoming, just days before, I had read in the Casper newspaper's society pages the minutes of the bi-monthly meeting of the local "Colored Women's Club."
In 1865, a Massachusetts newspaper editor named Samuel Bowles extolled the benefits of trans-national travel as a means of bringing "into harmony the heretofore jarring discords of a Continent of separated peoples."
I learned this on Sunday, while reading a review of Robert Sullivan's new book, "Cross Country." Sullivan, a veteran of some 30 continental traverses by motor -- with kids, bless him -- writes, "People remember their cross-country trips; emotionally speaking, crossing the country is a big deal."
A big deal from which more of us could benefit. One that might make us less quick to judge others, more inclined to appreciate the diversity that makes us, yes, unique -- if not necessarily, as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright opined, "the indispensable nation."
Hence my proposed constitutional amendment. With luck, the journey would render us more aware not just of the nation's physical virtues -- spacious, amber, fruited, purple, etc. -- but its often less tangible values. Truth. Justice. Freedom. The ones we assume but all too often fail to honor.
That's why I thought the quote of the week last week came from Lt. Commander Charles Swift, the Navy lawyer assigned to defend Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, held at Guantanamo. After the Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration's plan to try some of the Guantanamo detainees before secret military tribunals was illegal, Swift remarked that the ruling was "a return to our fundamental values... It shows that we can't be scared out of who we are, and that's a victory, folks."
A victory all too rare these days. There's that well-worn line in Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," an old song that, to me, is redolent of summertime and cross-country trips. You know the one: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." More and more, freedom's just another word for what we've already lost or are in danger of losing. That's one other thing you might find out when you hit the road.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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