Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Looking For America, Finding America: One Citizen's Road Trip

“A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.”
--from the film “Easy Rider”, 1969

I looked for America this past spring and summer and I couldn’t find it anywhere. 

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Because of work and vacation plans, from April to August, I visited thirteen states and traveled more than 10,000 miles, by air and on the road. I flew in the skies over the United States and drove on its highways, from the west to the east coast, from the heartland to the heart of the northeast and I got to see a lot of America in the past five months. 

And so I decided to look for America. 

I tried to find it. Tried to figure out just what makes America, America.  What makes America, at least for me, a precious and even sacred place, unlike any other country on the earth. My home. Our home. No: not in a triumphal way, with over the top flag waving or in your face chants of “USA! USA!” Instead, with a joyful and curious and grateful spirit, I tried to find America. I made this cross country pilgrimage at a time when it can seem as if America is coming apart at the seams, socially imploding somehow. America. Trapped in the midst of an often ugly and interminable national election, where politicians and pundits certainly seem oh self righteous about the America they claim that they’ve found.    

So what better time to look for America?

Maybe America is in a specific place I visited. Like the wide and white sandy beaches of Santa Cruz, California, where wetsuit clad surfers frolicked in the waves among the seals and the sun, an endless summer.  Or at a rural camp in suburban Connecticut, where a young couple made lifelong God-blessed promises to each other on the hottest day of the summer—100 degrees at 12 noon---then danced away to Grateful Dead tunes with family and friends cheering them on. Or is America in Rochester, Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, one of the best hospitals in the world, where compassionate doctors and nurses worked to make sure one of my best friends can beat cancer?  

I looked for Americans, too, on my trip. 

Maybe America is embodied in some specific person or peoples I met. The leather clad Harley riding biker, with a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker on the back of his jacket, who passed me on I-80 in deep woods Pennsylvania, and gave me a hearty wave and smile.  The pink haired young women in a yellow Volkswagen Bug, dancing away in her car to a full volume song, a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker on the back of her vehicle. She pulled up beside me on a sweltering stretch of highway near Akron, Ohio. Is America found in the faith of an earnest pastor in Cleveland, who drove me through the mean and hard streets of that inner city? He talked to me about how much he loved the folks he served, how determined he was that his church would make a difference for the better in his neighborhood.

Is America at the Starbucks in a trendy Minneapolis neighborhood, where a pony-tailed barista made me coffee? Or is it at a gritty truck stop in DuBois, Pennsylvania where the coffee was just ok but a tattoo covered clerk wished me a safe trip home. Her graceful benediction stayed with me for so many miles.  Is America a so called red state or blue state or purple state or battleground state?  I drove through them all.  Is it small town Cooperstown, New York with the old school Baseball Hall of Fame?  Or big city Oakland where I watched a ballgame on a muggy April Sunday afternoon with a fellow fan from Detroit. 

I looked for America and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead I found it everywhere.   

In tiny tucked away villages and broad shouldered urban enclaves; seemingly abandoned towns far off the interstate and brand new McMansion developments, springing up like sunflowers, by the side of the road. There was nowhere where America was not evident on my journey.

I found America in every one I encountered too. All of them Americans and America: blue and white collar, black and white, all colors; gay, straight, families of all shapes and sizes too.  Saw lots of faith. Houses of worship were every where. But I also saw lots of Sunday morning folks who “worshipped” at the Waffle House on the Sabbath.  And here’s the miraculous truth: every last person I met was an American.  No one left out. No one uncounted. No one unseen. 
I learned in my ultimate American road trip one lesson that America and Americans seem to forget and therefore need to relearn again and again and again. America is me. America is you. America is always all of us, together. That “E Pluribus Unum” thing. From many, one. Even if we don’t always get that right. We are America: a beautiful and broken land, so wonderful and so hurting at times too.  We have such great hopes for ourselves and our nation: that’s why our disappointments and frustrations are so great as well.

But America?  No worries. I looked for it. Then I found it. I just had to open my eyes and my heart.  How about you? Have you found America?

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