Saturday, August 05, 2006

Driving Through the Fly-Over States

For the sixth time since 1999, our family is making a cross-country trek to California: 1 minivan, 2 adults, 4 kids, 2200 miles (x2), 3 days, 6 people/hotel room. You do the math.

But there's no better way to see America--indeed, no more "American" way to see America--than to drive it. In particular, I was struck this time how few cultural commentators actually drive through these "fly over" states. We should admit that there's a class element at work here: if you're driving across Nebraska and Wyoming to enjoy time in the Napa Valley, then chances are you can't really afford to be hanging out in the Napa Valley. And so driving across the fly-over states is a bit like riding the city bus: you meet an "interesting" cross-section of people (a massive Harley-Davidson rally in Sturgis, SD filled I-80 with bikes and people of all kinds). But this is just to be reminded that the world is bigger than the comfy, educated confines of the East Coast.

So most of the cultural elites who get to comment on culture spend very little time in these regions of "red" America. Now granted, I can understand why: for instance, in the hotels we stay at (only requirement: free continental breakfast must be included; our family of 6 makes a killing on that :-), even CNN is too liberal, so unlike the airports of the flying class, the lobbies and breakfast nooks of these fly-over hotels blare FOX News at all hours. (I thought I was going to have a coronary when forced into the same room as their coverage of the Israel/Lebanon conflict this morning.) And civil religion is in full swing in these parts, all under the rubric of the "heartland" (why does that call to mind the German Heimat?)--as in the "Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles" in Lexington, NE, or the Wal-mart temples that are found in even the most obscure places out here.

Curious sightings, too: like in central Nebraska, when we whizzed past a huge, hand-painted sign that proclaimed in scrawled letters: "Outlaw Sodomy." Who exactly is the audience for this sign? And what's the impetus? It's not like there's a huge influx of the "creative class" in Gothenberg, NE. A cynical scan of the local demographics had me wondering if maybe this was a sign the local livestock had erected.

But for all that, there's still an inestimable charm about the fly-over states. One finds oneself drawn into long conversations at gas stations and drive-thrus, just because folks are so darn friendly. And for all the critique of the idolatry of "manifest destiny," it was still a bit of a boyhood dream when we visited a Pony Express station in NE, and found in there a gracious, dignified older woman who shared with our kids the story--without too much propaganda--of the shortlived Pony Express.

And, of course, there's the geography: the unbelievable array of colors and curvatures as one moves across the corn states, through the plains, into the desert and up the mountains. And that's just one day! Groves on the edge of tiny lakes in Nebraska seem to be hiding young lovers curled up in the grass or skinny dipping under the trees; at times western Wyoming looks like a lunar landscape, while at other times the Wyoming sky is so vast and sprawling that one thinks it just might be falling.

So I don't consider driving through the fly-over states a drudgery (even if, I confess, I too easily lapse into a kind of East Coast cynicism about middle-American 'culture'--as if somebody from Grand Rapids, MI has any right to be a snob! ;-). Rather, I consider this cross-country ritual both a discipline and a blessing: field research, and an opportunity to be enriched. And I hope this sinks into my kids' blood, so that even if they make it into that "class" which can afford to fly-over this expanse, they'll choose not to--because they'll know what they're missing.