America, The Beautiful.
It’s twilight on Donner Lake, and curtains of golden light filter down through the trees. Drops from my damp hair drips onto my paper. This is the final act of my 12 day, 7 state, 6 swimming hole, 2827 mile Western States road trip, and the curtains are coming to a soft and sweeping close.
During the final 16-hour drive back to the Bay Area, a flood of reflection fills my little car. It’s been a whirlwind adventure — walking and talking with a kindred spirit in Tahoe, spinning and smiling on hilltops with my cousins in Boise, Idaho, swimming in Ogden, Utah’s reservoirs, attempting to mountain bike the snow in Medicine Bow, Wyoming and climbing Joshua-Tree esque rock formations with my best friend in Vedauwoo. From there, I spent solo time writing and swimming in Fort Collins, then reconnected with old friends in Denver. After a quick coffee shop stop in Golden, Colorado, I drove into peaks, hills and car troubles on the way to Carbondale — where I quickly forgot about the car worries thanks to another smiling friend and her pup. In two days, we swam in lakes and SUPed a few, went “backpacking” off a forest road, mountain biked a fast and flowy trail in Aspen and shared many smiles. Feeling the pull to head back to California, I left and spent my final night in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. I listened to six or seven podcasts, two audio books, hours of music, four coaching audios and even did three coaching sessions out of the back of my little car that could. Much has happened, and the little car that could needs a rest. She’s shaking and exhausted (check engine light is flashing again) and I’ll need a tow back from Tahoe just to make it home.
While I could spend hours reflecting about those moments (and I will, though those reflections are scribbled in the private margins of my notebooks), there’s so much rich observation in the downtime between the doing.
I love road trips. I’m not sure if it’s because of the memories of family vacations in one of my Dad’s Volkswagen vans or the time I spent living out of my vehicle teaching Outdoor Ed, but America’s Favorite Pastime (er… I think that’s baseball, but it really should be camping and driving) is always invigorating. It’s the freedom of packing everything up and being entirely self sufficient, with all the adventures to come. The independence. When it comes to trips, I hardly plan them. I just get in my car, pile in all the knick-knacks and toys it can hold, and go.
On this trip, I’ve seen friends and places. But more than anything, I’ve felt connected to America — its land, its people and its culture.
Patriotism, for me, is a strange thing at the moment. I find myself appalled at our political system and the cronyism happening there, disgusted and ashamed of our current president and his policies, and admittedly, scared for the future if this continues. So, when I left my nice little San Francisco bubble, it was with an observant eye. What is the state of my country outside of Silicon Valley and its cushy liberal sensibilities?
Turns out, the state of my country pretty damn beautiful.
There are forests that span for miles, and land free for the camping and conserving. There’s wilderness full of timid deer and bumbling bears living with inquisitive chipmunks. Towering red rock columns swirled like strawberry ice cream. Simmering hot springs, roaring rivers, tranquil lakes and pools. There are verdant grasslands and golden fields. Protected land gives us space to breathe.
Snuggled into this land, is our past. The past of dilapidated farms, with lean-to structures that may not lean much longer. Brick-laden, one street towns that hearken to the boom times of mining and railroads and GOLD in them thar’ hills! Trails left from settlers coming west on creaky wagons, betting their lives on a possible future. Remnants of the Pony Express and the United States Post Office, that once served as lifelines for the lonely pioneers. 1800 miles on horseback in 10 days to deliver a letter! These are the stories we are told and taught.
Look closer, and there’s more than the past that’s posted on placards. There are the massacres and slavery of thousands of Native peoples, and the current reality of life on reservations. In each mining and railroad town, there are stories of Chinese and Japanese immigrants who built them and ensured future prosperity. What’s left of them is a ramshackle building façade, paint peeling off the sign “Yamato Hardware”. Let’s not forget the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American men who patrolled the Southwest for decades. We are a country of bright futures grown on the back of dark realities.
America is far from perfect. In fact, after listening to Ted Talks and books on the power of vulnerability, I got to thinking. I wonder — how different our geopolitical landscape would be if we owned up to our own vulnerability, instead of rejecting it in a show of strength? Could we have collaborators instead of competitors? What would it look like to embrace our weaknesses? What’s possible? I feel like there’s a one-woman show possibility here — coaching America if our country were a person.
However, America is not a person. It’s certainly not Donald Trump or even Obama or Roosevelt or Lincoln. America is a diverse land of people, places, cultures and histories. And, there are certain things I’m quite proud of.
For one, seeing families pile into their minivans and get outside. Our culture of recreation is strong, and more importantly, we have so many natural lands and open spaces. I can only hope that as more people connect to nature, we continue to protect these lands. Our expansive open spaces and sweeping views are a unique and necessary part of our country. We are so lucky to have them, and we need to fight for them.
Also, the continued energy toward entrepreneurship is invigorating. The grit and passion of miners, business owners and farmers establishing shops and inventing tools lives on in these small towns. There’s a reason San Francisco is seeing a Silicon Valley boom — it’s the gold rush of our time. We continue to innovate as a nation. And, like the gold rush, we would have never seen prosperity without the hard work and leadership of immigrants. They are a vital part of our history and our future.
Finally, the biggest thing I got from driving around from flag to flag and town to town was pride. The patriotism we have as a country is palpable, even when we disagree with the current politics. We are proud of America, its opportunities, its land and its people. We believe in it with an unparalleled amount of faith.
That belief makes me feel a part of the American community, and I think there’s something there. We believe in a greater sense of democracy. We believe in the power of the people as a whole. We believe in freedom and independence.
I wonder though, if we could start believing in each other a bit more. If we focused, too, on interdependence. If we took the time to ask our neighbor (maybe even a neighbor who looks different or sounds different or lives differently) what they’re up to these days. What would happen if we asked about their struggles and their successes? If we got a little more vulnerable with our own issues, and shared them with someone else? We live in our little bubbles, tied to the belief that we understand the whole. We don’t. I don’t walk in your shoes, and you don’t walk in mine. But maybe, I can try yours on for a second and see how they feel. I think it would make us less scared, more empowered, and more empathetic.
On my trip, I took away an overwhelming sense that as Americans, a majority of us are living in a place of fear; whether those fears manifest themselves in owning a bunch of guns or in protests and calls to legislators. We’ve got to start owning our own fears and connecting with each other. We’ve got a country to be proud of.
So, this Fourth of July, I’ll be thinking about independence. But I’ll also be thinking about interdependence. I experienced both so much on this trip — it was an independent journey for purely selfish purposes (fun and adventure!), but it wouldn’t have been possible without interdependence with nature, with story and with other people. I want to live a more connected life. I don’t want to be blind to the good or the bad. I want to be my independent, raucously free self, but I want to understand what that means for others.
It’s both independence and interdependence that really, really make me proud to be an American.
And that I am.
Happy 4th, everyone.