American space is a relief valve from which not all divided societies benefit.
Bigfork, Montana • I write these words early in a dark motel room, 2,460 miles from my home, eight hours east of Seattle and 45 minutes south of Glacier National Park. Around me, five other people are still sleeping: my wife and four children, crammed into queen-size beds, an air mattress and a pack-and-play. Such have been our conditions for the past 16 nights, which we have spent claiming an important American birthright: migration west by minibus, the high road across the country.
In ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ this late Cold War Americana classic, one of the defected Soviet submarine officers, played by Sam Neill, raves about his future as a free American. – living in Montana with a pickup truck or “maybe even an ‘RV’ and driving ‘interstate’ without ‘papers’. Towards the end of the movie, the character takes a bullet, and dying, whispers, “I wish I had seen Montana.”
Whatever flaws exist in the upbringing of our children, our children have now at least seen Montana – and before that, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota and so on across the Midwest until our distant hobbit homeland of Connecticut. By the time you read this, assuming I’m not recruited from a group of survivalists somewhere north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, they will have seen Idaho and Washington as well.
Specifically, they saw the Pittsburgh Zoo and the golden dome of Notre Dame (during a 15-minute stop to stretch their legs), gazed up at Chicago from the top of a skyscraper, and dipped their feet in Lake Michigan. They’ve wasted hours at a Minnesota water park, wandered the prairie where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the later ‘Little House’ books, seen Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, baked in the Badlands and dodged lightning. around Devil’s Tower, bathed in hot springs and dug for dinosaur bones in Thermopolis, Wyoming, observed geysers and grizzly bears in Yellowstone and a particularly careless beaver in Glacier National Park, and stared home prices in Bozeman, Montana.
OK, the latter was actually their parents; the kids were busy with overpriced burgers while we watched the influx of money into “Boz Angeles.” Like a good journalist, I’ve tried to pull together some string for the columns on this trip, and issues of migration, density and development loom large as you traverse the (arguably) underpopulated West – as big as the billboard welcoming visitors to Cody, Wyoming, reading “Not Californian our Cody.”
But for this column, with our journey still unfinished, I want to risk two general observations about America on a grand scale – trite perhaps, but I’ll take the risk.
The first is a sense of wonder at the uncrowded availability of sights and sights on Western roads. I read all the stories about increased US travel and overcrowded national parks, but the only real bottleneck we encountered was at Glacier, where the main roads were closed by snow and everyone was pushed on the same paths. And every place we stopped with a degree less fame than major national parks — like South Dakota’s beautiful Custer State Park or the hot springs in Thermopolis — was extraordinarily empty. There were probably 20 people under the wild, impossible shade of Devil’s Tower the night we went up.
Available doesn’t mean perfectly accessible, of course: even crammed into motel rooms, we’ve dropped a pretty penny on gas alone, and day after day of hours on the road trying to teach kids the American presidents (we stalled after Lincoln, as expected) and realizing that the 2-year-old knows some of the inappropriate parts of “Hamilton” isn’t an experience for everyone. But if you’re used to crowded spaces on the coasts, know that everything really blends in – and not just in cornfields, pastures or desert, but in a landscape filled with places made for travelers, which offer rewards immediate even for the most casual visitor.
This joins the second observation, which is precisely the intense difference between America experienced as a geographical entity, a continental empire, and America experienced as a virtual landscape, via the screens and applications through which we increasingly meet in addition.
The comparison doesn’t reflect well on virtual America, which seems crowded and exhausting, a thousand people shouting at each other in a mid-sized hotel ballroom. I don’t mean to cross physical America exposes the online version as “unreal”, because life online is all very real in its own way, and our national parks and roadside attractions are not the places where most Americans go about their daily lives. Lives.
But this country’s interstate space, its complexity, diversity and simple wilderness, still feels like a potential asset to counter the claustrophobia of small-screen politics and culture wars — a relief valve from which not all divided societies benefit. , a means of escape and reinvention that the internet constrains but has not yet eliminated.
Seeing America gives you hope for America. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have eight hours in a crowded minivan ahead of me.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.