American Impressions: Afterword
America, My Backyard
My trip across the continent was over. So was the century (please, no more hairsplitting blah blah blah about 2001 being the new century). The question was how to bring both to a close without contamination from Peter Jennings’ version of how The End ought to be.
The answer: A friend and I packed a tent, a ham, and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, the brand of champagne Humphrey Bogart served globe-trotting exiles in “ Casablanca,” and headed for the desert.
We took to the back country at Joshua Tree National Park in California, got mugged by a band of cacti called, for good reason, Jumping Chollo, found a desolate little spot at the foot of a hill of granite and next to those Joshua trees blooming with porcupines, and pitched our party tent at nightfall. If the end was near, we couldn’t feel it, so we must have been in the right place.
With the temperature well below freezing and midnight too many hours away, we started drinking to the new millennium on Eastern Standard Time (I’m still a Floridian) and made our way west over the next three hours, forgetting our own midnight.
A few coyotes sniffed around the tent for our ham. We thought we heard voices. And we saw the blinking lights of planes hanging on to the sky, like the stars, instead of falling out of it.
That’s how the great event came and went, as did the night. That the sun actually rose in the morning had to be somewhat of a letdown. Dramatically speaking, witnessing the end of the world would have lent the perfect ending to my trip and my fraction of the American Century. But so it goes with arbitrary ends: they don’t mean anything. Neither, really, does the end of a spectacular journey across the country.
Still, big ends compel some sort of summing up, of best-of lists, of final thoughts, and that’s just what I’m having a hard time with right now.
Top 10 Best States of the Union? Montana and New Hampshire and Georgia aren’t like cuts of meat that can be compared for their tenderness and texture. The reasons I might have found being in one place more pleasant than another were usually purely subjective, although it’s difficult to make a case for relativism between, say, natural beauty in New Jersey, which is endangered, and natural beauty in Montana, which is relentless.
Top 10 Worst Experiences? Too petty to worry about, even if I’ll never forget that creepy hotel clerk in Minneapolis who thought I was a most-wanted bandit.
Most remarkable people? Too many to mention.
In short, America can’t be summed up any more than a millennium can. The best summing up would be to do the trip all over again, more intelligently, and maybe with a few fewer hardships (Exxon coffee and a couple of personal losses come to mind).
That won’t be possible, but staying away from America is going to take work. All I have to do is watch The Weather Channel to be reminded of how hard it’ll be.
For every Fahrenheit reading flashing on the national map somewhere in the country, I can think of a landmark, a memory, a connection of some sort—Ron Martin, the grandfatherly gun-lover and gun show organizer in Georgia; Feliciano Garcia, the 29-year-old ex-illegal alien from Mexico and now third-term mayor of Rio Bravo on the Texas-Mexico border; the underrated beauty of the Nebraska Sand Hills; the Hill City, Kan., Rotary Club singing “Home on the Range” for me; becoming a commune’s family member for Thanksgiving day in Oregon; and even tripping over my roots in Santa Monica, where meeting a Lebanese movie director turned into an unlikely rediscovery.
In most cases, what made the memory—what registered that marker on the map—wasn’t planned so much as stumbled into as a result of a suggestion, a question asked here and there, a breakfast conversation with a stranger, or just taking an exit on a whim. Those coincidental discoveries taught me the most about this country. They had nothing in common with the suggestions of guidebooks, which I now find to be the surest ways to dead-end—and deadening—travel.
Driving the van back to Florida a few days ago I stopped in Butte, Mont., for breakfast at a little family restaurant in the worn downtown.
The place was called Darlene’s or Doreen’s, or something like that from the Great Depression’s Greatest Names, with a menu the back cover of which has a poem about Butte and why miners from all over the world came here to mine and stay and love Butte, and a bathroom down wooden steps so steep the waitress has to warn you and then give you directions through the basement’s discards to the end of the store, “toward the street,” where you then go up another brief set of steep stairs, open a wooden door that winces, and step into a stall with a green toilet seat and air that smells, and looks, yellow.
Everything in Butte is hued a dusk-like yellow. It’s a town of copper. The radio station is Copper 94. The streets are called Aluminum Street and other metallic markers from the periodic table. The buildings, and people’s skins, are rust-colored, bronzed by decades of exposure to their life-giver at the edge of town—a copper mine so big and once so productive that the continent and much of the world depended on it.
The mine at the outskirts of town is an enormous gash against a mountain that’s part of the Great Divide. Stripped, the mountain looks divided against its will, but not against America’s. The Hill, as locals call the mountain, produced 13 billion pounds of copper from the end of the 19 th century to the middle of the 20 th or a third of all the copper used in the United States during those decades of industrial transformation.
Butte, in other words, wired America with its copper, lighting it up.
The mine has produced a few more billion pounds of copper since, but nothing so glorious or crucial as before the 1950s. It has produced something else since 1982: One of the biggest man-made toxic lakes in the world -- 30 billion gallons of water run-off in a 600-acre lake.
It could have been a nice new recreation area for the moribund town. But the bedrock is full of sulfur. When it mixes with water, it creates sulfuric acid. Copper, cadmium and arsenic also are part of the stew. Drop any metal in there, and sooner or later it’ll dissolve. Migrating geese occasionally mistake the lake for a temporary haven. They die by the hundreds, their insides corroded from drinking the water.
Breakfast was good. It always is in those musty dives where the seat cushions are reddish and springy and the tables not quite cleaned up of a few generations of Aunt Jemima’s.
When I got ready to leave, I went up to the counter to ask the lone waitress where, as I put it, the big toxic dump was. She looked at me as if I was in the Vatican and she was a nun of wrinkles and I had called the Sistine Chapel Lucifer’s den of whores. “It’s not toxic,” she shot—and I mean shot, her eyes a double-barreled Winchester—back. “It’s just water run-off from the mine.”
A woman sitting across the counter and smoking her seven millionth cigarette said: “It’s just full of metals that you need in your system to live—iron, copper, gold.” She also was incensed, and the two women looked at each other in what must have been a practiced maneuver of repelling toxic strangers. Used to it in summer, they must have been surprised to have to circle the wagons on a winter morning.
”My grandfather worked at the mine all his life. He lived to be 94,” she said. I felt bad. And then I didn’t. I asked again where the dump was, excluding the word toxic, and the wrinkled waitress-nun said it was at the end of the avenue out front. I drove out there and saw the mine, but not the pit. Only the “ Berkeley Pit Visitor Center.”
I didn’t know the pit had been christened, or that it had become a tourist attraction (dying towns will turn to anything to make money). But it was closed for the winter, and the pit was hidden behind a minimum-security-prison-like fence topped with a ridge of barbed wire and a levee.
SYMBOLS OF OUR AGE
I took a couple of pictures and left, thinking how places don’t have to be cute or quaint, let alone particularly healthy, to be fascinating. Here, after all, was an example of what had literally built the country, and what it had become in the post-industrial age. But it is not, strictly speaking, an attractive place. It hasn’t been sanitized by the requisite number of antique shops, bed-and-breakfast joints and coffee houses to make it appealing. So it’s mostly bypassed or ignored, because it seems like just a pit. But it isn’t. “Like Concord, Gettysburg, and Wounded Knee,” the writer Edwin Dobb wrote four years ago, “ Butte is one of the places America came from.”
The country is full of Buttes.
This month’s National Geographic features a story by a British writer who became American many years ago and a Polish photographer who still lives in Warsaw but who first crossed the United States on assignment for the Geographic in 1987. The magazine sent them both across the country again for a piece called “Rediscovering America.” They came back with the usual observations of how kind Americans are, how helpful, how trusting, how inventive, and so on.
The piece was written with a bit of that gee-whiz element of surprise, as in “an America of morning sunshine, the dew barely off the unfenced lawns, of an egalitarian cheerfulness and a future as full of unbounded possibilities as the continent itself” and of how—get this—“people would turn out to be friendly.” The observations might as well have been lifted from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” written 170 years ago.
In other words, nothing has changed. That writers traveling the country insist on being surprised by the good nature of its people (and its intentions) must be one of those attention-grabbing tricks of which I wasn’t immune.
From far away—from Lebanon, in my case—and with the eyes of a child, America was most of all an empire of bigness. Everything about it seemed bigger than anywhere else. A child’s perspective being what it is, bigger also meant better. Adult eyes and proximity don’t change that perspective much.
Up close, America is still bigger than any child’s imagination could picture, and blithering naysayers aside (me included on occasion), it is also, in more ways than any civilization has managed before it, better. As the naturalized ex-French journalist Ted Morgan put it, “This country is a success, in the same way that a Broadway show is a success. People are lined up at the box office for tickets of admission.”
Once here, one of the ways we become American is by learning to take for granted what once amazed us, the size of things especially. Triple-decker burgers, triple-decker malls, canyons the size of some countries or freedoms scaled outside of any size become routine expectations.
Our threshold of surprise is raised so high that mere bigness isn’t a big deal anymore. In that sense, I have become fully American. Bigness doesn’t impress me anymore.
But I’m not taking anything for granted.
If a year spent crossing the 50 states by road has done one thing, it has made me think of the country as a neighborhood more than as a continent—as my neighborhood. Retreating to the desert has its place, but it doesn’t beat diving back into the thick of America, sulfurous bedrock and all.