I remember plotting it out over a map of the United States spread out before me on the floor of my bedroom in the suburban home I grew up in. I would go to New Orleans, then up to St. Louis, out across the Rockies to Colorado, then to Salt Lake, then to San Francisco. Id turn back east stopping at the Grand Canyon; make a stop in Ohio to see my grandparents. And then I would come home. That’s how I decided it, just like that, sitting on the floor and looking at a map. I would do this using a Greyhound Bus Ameripass, which in 1980 allowed you to travel for 30 days, wherever and as much as you needed to, for $300, staying in youth hostels along the way.
It was a humidity-sodden day in July—the kind of day in D.C. when everyone seems to be somewhere else; the kind of day that feels like you could lose it like so much soggy lint in your pocket—that I boarded a bus at the depot in Silver Spring, Maryland, the neighboring town to my own Bethesda, Maryland. Silver Spring, then, was (at least in my memory) a smoggy, congested concrete attachment to the nation’s capital, surfeited with carry-out joints and failing strip malls. This was just how I remember my departure on this adventure of mine across the country—humid, non-descript, a lost little day in mid-summer. The bus depot manager was a moon-faced fellow in a baseball cap from whom I bought the Ameripass that same day, but I told him I was headed to my first stop in New Orleans. I’d be taking the regular bus south to Richmond—it left two or three times a day—and all of the dozen or so other passengers waiting in the dingy little station were heading either to Richmond or to points north of there along the way. I would be switching buses several times in several stations in the old confederacy before reaching my destination; it was early afternoon when the bus departed and the plan was for me to arrive in New Orleans mid- or late-afternoon of the next day, something more than a 24-hour journey. But when the bus was ready to board the moon-faced manager called out “New Orleans” as if I was heading, maybe, across town or across state. I was in gym shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt carrying one large grimy yellow knapsack stuffed with clothes, a smaller pack with books, a camera, snack food and the like, and a waist pack where I carried cash and my packet of bus tickets.
It was a young man’s adventure, the kind of thing undertaken with not much more forethought or cautionary planning than I have just described. I had tried the college thing—both my brothers had gone off to schools before and were now graduated into the world—and while I hadn’t done badly, it hadn’t been a good experience. I had taken the second semester of my sophomore year off, come home to live with my parents, and worked at a drug store (a local DC chain then called “People’s Drug Store,” that would be bought out later by CVS). There was a plan in the works for me to attend a different school in the fall, but truthfully I wasn’t much focused on that; what I wanted to do was get out from under what felt like everyone else’s script and scout around the great world of my own country.
It was an idea born of books I had read—especially, as a teenager John Steinbeck’s "Travels With Charley," "Grapes of Wrath," "Tortilla Flats" and "Cannery Row"—and an ethos I had absorbed from other writers and poets and singers and songwriters, the idea that to discover the country you had to go out and visit it, and in visiting it you would be transformed yourself. So that your own self-discovery was intimately linked with your discovery of what it meant—or some small piece of what it meant—to be an American.
Something like that. Sounds a tad melodramatic, perhaps, but it’s a theme that runs deep in American literature. I’ll confess up front, though, that while there are some highlights, viewed from a certain vantage point it can look mostly like a kid in sneakers and a t-shirt on a bus, drinking a shitload of beer wherever he was able. (And I should add that the reader will have to trust me; I have no documentary evidence of this adventure, neither pictures nor the diary I carried have survived, and some pockets of this excursion have blurred with time.)
And yet…I have today, more than 35 years later, a great affection and respect for my younger, adventurous self, and it was a journey that has stayed with me. I go over these recollections every now and again, trying to polish and make shine what it was that stays with me, what it is that seems significant today. It did change me, and it was one in which I did come to know my amazing country more intimately. This is an American story.
It went mostly as planned. I toured the French Quarter in New Orleans, then stayed two nights in a dormitory at Tulane and rode the streetcar up and down the Garden District; spent one night in a homeless shelter in sweltering St. Louis (it was something like 111 degrees) because I arrived on a Sunday and the hostel was closed (so that didn’t go quite as planned); spent four nights in Boulder, Colorado, trying to absorb the fact that people there casually walked around doing their business with those mountains in their backyard; spent a couple of nights in Salt Lake, treating myself to a Holiday Inn (what I mostly remember is how clean the city was, and my amazement that there were non-Mormon churches, plenty of them, there.) From San Francisco, I hitchhiked north to the wine country, and south down the coast to Carmel (receiving a ride in a pick-up truck I will never forget). Turning back east, I stayed in Flagstaff, Arizona where the youth hostel at the time was atop a bar-café called Charlies; because of its proximity to the Canyon, it attracted young people from all over the world as well as students from Arizona State, and folks from the town--it was a lively place at night and in the morning you could hitch a ride to the Canyon, 90 miles north.
I learned a lot that summer and I wonder why it feels slightly embarrassing to say that one of the things l learned was to love my country. Certainly, I thought I loved my country before, or would have said so if someone had asked me—after all, I had said the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school and sung (or lipsynced) the National Anthem at ballgames and had been told through twelve-plus years of American public school that I had everything to be grateful for being born here. But getting to see the colossal land of my birth or a fraction of it, gave me a physical, sensual sense of the country I hadn’t had before. I suppose it may have first come to me with my first glimpse of the Rockies; it was a breathtaking source of wonder to awaken in Boulder, Colorado and step outside and see a mountain—not the little green hills we call mountains back east, but a great, jagged-tooth eruption of God’s earth tipped at the top with snow—looming over you. It will humble anyone’s provincialism. Standing on the grounds of the youth hostel in San Francisco at Fort Mason on Fisherman’s Wharf at night, looking out at the twinkling lights of the city, I marveled at the distance I had travelled, and at the vastness of the country, aware for the first time and in a way that has stayed with me, that we are part of something that is larger than our own narrow ideas about it.
(There are times, I confess, when I sometimes don’t feel very American and think I might “fit in” better in, say, England or some chilly Scandanavian place, where everyone’s emotional temperature is lower. I can’t quite master the habit of sunny optimism, the idea that the trend is always up, that it is always morning in America and I think, in fact, American culture would benefit from a better apprehension of the tragic sense of life. But this is a matter of temperment. The truth is, I couldn’t live anywhere else.)
Probably, people like me—by which I mean people who identify, with varying degrees of allegiance, with the political left of center—should be less shy about expressing profound feelings of patriotism; that reticence has allowed others, who have the most anemic and emaciated counterfeit of love for their country, to portray us as enemies of a most fundamental sort. It’s an easily manipulated (and easily counterfeited) thing, patriotism. “The last refuge of scoundrels,” an Englishman said of it four centuries ago. More recently, Joan Didion wrote in an essay, “On Morality” that she distrusted the word “morality,” distrusted it’s use in any but the most irreducible sense—as when (this is just how irreducible she meant the only sense in which it was trustable) you vow not to leave a dead body out on the desert, because the buzzards and coyotes will feed it on it. That’s “immoral.” Anything more abstract, or symbolic than that, than vowing not to leave dead bodies on the desert floor, is horseshit.
The problem, maybe, is that patriotism is easily identified with its symbols—a flag, an anthem—which are then easily fetishized. Consider: some black athletes take a knee during the national anthem; okay, you might say with reason, it’s an act that requires no great courage from young people earning millions of dollars to play a game six months of the year. But it does stem from something real, at least as real as the experiences I have described (if not a lot more so) the felt experience among black Americans that they are more liable to die or be roughly and unfairly treated at the hands of the police. (The game they play, by the way, despite the millions of dollars, is going to discard them when they are not yet out of their youth, and when they may be significantly brain damaged for the rest of their lives).
But mark the response from the Vice President of the United States who flies to a football game with the express purpose of walking out of the game when the players kneel. Now here is an act that approximates almost perfectly the exact juncture of cynicism, phoniness, opportunism and infantalism. Call this nearly mythical place, Horseshit Central. Here is an act that requires exactly zero courage, costs exactly nothing (to the Vice President; the rest of us foot the bill for the plane ride); it may have leant some thin, short-lived symbolic support to police officers who may feel themselves aggrieved—maybe—but the audience the Vice President was really playing to wasn’t cops, but people whose purchase on ersatz patriotism becomes tighter once they’ve sunk into the barcolounger and started in on that first six-pack. Oh, look! He’s walking out! Look at him go! Yep, there is he, walking out! You can almost hear one of those nameless, brainless “color” commentators who litter the professional football airwaves, saying, “There he goes, Joe, walking out! Is that some integrity? Or What?”
The tacky and sinister phoniness of this repellent charade is enough to make you read the last rites over American self-government; to borrow a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, you can’t eat enough to vomit enough. For the record, I think I would prefer the players stood during the anthem, if only because their protest contributes to the pervasive sense of entropy everywhere, the sense that things are falling apart. I like patriotic songs and think it is a sweet thing to sing them at sporting events, although—forgive me—the Star Spangled Banner is just a song, not a great one. It's difficult to sing and the lyrics are grammatically a little weird. I prefer God Bless America or America the Beautiful or My Country Tis of Thee.
It was probably inevitable—given the bad shape professional football is in and its dubious future—that the owners would give in to the President and enact their little ban on freedom of speech. The President’s supporters are free to hail this as some kind of victory, but if mandatory political rituals are your idea of patriotism, you might want to try North Korea. You can stand at attention all the live long day.
Not every topic of discussion about patriotism, or that evokes declarations of patriotism, is so frivilous and dumb. The debate about immigration engages fundamental questions—What is an American? Who is an American? What does it mean to be an American?—and things real rather than only symbolic. A border is a very real thing—I can show you where it is on a map—and the liberal left (never failing to seize on an opportunity to miss an opportunity) makes a big mistake when it speaks of open borders, or in platitudes such as “no human being is illegal.”
`But an immigrant (and her child) is also quite real, and the immigrant—almost always throughout American history derided as dirty, disease-carrying, or criminal—is in the realest sense just exactly what America is about. (Want to engage in an act of patriotism? Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.)
The conservative writer Brett Stephens recently made the interesting case that the United States needs more immigration. And he had this to say:
Or at least they used to, before they became the party of Trump — of his nativism, demagoguery, and penchant for capricious cruelty. It was nice to hear Republican legislators decry the family separation policy. But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that a plurality of Republicans, 46 percent, favored it, while only 32 percent were opposed, according to an Ipsos poll commissioned by the Daily Beast.
This isn’t a party that’s merely losing its policy bearings. It’s one that’s losing its moral sense. If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, then opposition to immigration is the conservatism of morons. It mistakes identity for virtue, entitlement for merit, geographic place for moral value. In a nation of immigrants, it’s un-American.”
Then, too, there is this: It occurred to me that anyone seeking a picture of our possibly bleak future should contemplate not the “illegals” coming over our border, but the face of a white man legally born in the United States—the 21-year old gunman who two years ago shot nine Charleston, South Carolina churchgoers at a Bible study. I suppose this young man might be able to name the author of The Declaration of the Independence, and possibly “Huckleberry Finn.” But I doubt seriously he could say who wrote “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Leaves of Grass,” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Eve”; doubt seriously he could say the historical significance of Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, or Williamsburg, let alone Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Pearl Harbor, or Selma, Alabama; doubt seriously he had ever visited a National Park, or could even name the state where the Grand Canyon is.
Illiterate, or anyway sub-literate, bereft of any knowledge of our history, literature or geography, he is only nominally American. Jobless, mentally ill, vaguely aware that he is somehow falling behind, he does not have a high school education, but he does have enough information, gleaned from surfing the Internet, to determine that it is someone else who is the cause of his troubles. And he does have access to a gun.
To carry your country around with you--that is the beginning and end of patriotism. Two of my favorite writers and thinkers are Andrew Sullivan and the late Christopher Hitchens—both of them Anglo-immigrant writers who never declined to extol the virtues of America (they can also be acidly critical of this country). Hitchens had this to say on an interview show when a caller asked him to say whether he thought America is the greatest country on earth:
"I think I like America most on all the days when people are not going around `USA! USA! We're number one! We're the greatest!' I prefer the days when they don't do that. It's a matter of `always think of it, never speak of it.’"
But then Hitchens reflected and added, "Of course, objectively as well as subjectively, the American Revolution is now the only revolution with a fighting chance of survival and success: the idea that you could create a multicultural democracy over a vast expanse of the earth's surface that could possibly be emulated by other people.”
I was on my way back from the Canyon, my last day there, hitching south back to Flagstaff, and I had gotten started late because I had lingered in the Canyon for a few hours before heading back up and by the time I got to the lip and began hitchhiking back it was late afternoon. The traffic going south from the Canyon is on interstate 180, which breaks southeast toward Flagstaff about 45 minutes in, at a little spot on the map called Valle; but some of the traffic continues due south to Williams, and my first ride dropped me at the intersection with Flagstaff still the better part of an hour away.
The traffic had seemed to slow—most of the families had headed back to wherever they were going earlier in the afternoon—and I looked around at a vast desert around me as the sun began to set. There was, I think I remember, a building of some kind in the middle distance, but it was pretty lonely out there and a sense of foreboding began to build as I scanned the empty highway for southbound traffic. Darkness was not far off.
It’s a moment that has stayed with me, as defining as any of the other more dramatic points along this journey—arriving at night in New Orleans, seeing the Rockies for the first time, the ride in the pick-up along the Big Sur, the Canyon, looking out at San Francisco at night from the Wharf—but to anyone viewing the scene they would see only a guy with a knapsack and his thumb out over an empty highway. It was an entirely interior moment, but I have never forgotten it, and have come to believe in it as a kind of hinge in my life.
It was, simply, a decision not to panic, a determination not to be scared—although I was. That’s all I can tell you. I had come this far, I had charted this journey on my own, I had staked a claim of sorts on a vast, vast country, and now I felt myself to be a different, older person than when I had left—and somehow I would work this out. (In truth, I’m not sure what I could have done had the situation really gotten desperate; there was, maybe, that building in the distance—it might have been a post-office or some such thing—and there may have been a payphone there; maybe I thought I would stand on the highway and force someone, or a truck, to stop. Who knows? ) Anyway, I stuck my thumb out and waited. It did start to darken, but of course in time a ride came and I arrived back at Charlie’s well before nightfall.
Maybe a lot of the most important moments in our life are like that moment of mine on the desert highway—private, interior transitions and epiphanies that can scarcely be conveyed to any others. A few weeks after returning home, I was off to a new school experience, a little bit more mature, more confident that I was capable of writing my own script. I had changed.
Someday, I would like to recapitulate this adventure (although now I’m not sure I could deal with 30 days on a bus!). I’d like to travel a northern route, through the Great Lakes region, the iron range of Minnesota, the Dakotas, the great Northwest. I’d like to visit my country again.
At the conclusion of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Chief Broom, newly escaped from the institution to which he had been harnessed his adult life, contemplates the open road and the continent that surrounds him. “I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I’ll stop along the Columbia on the way. I’d like to check around Portland and Hood River and The Dalles to see if there’s any of the guys I used to know back in the village….Mostly, I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again.
“I been away too long.”