I returned last year to the U.S. from living mostly overseas for a season, ending with the COVID explosion which seemed as good a time as any for a change. I was given what I assume was bad-faith guidance, “Go and discover the new America”. As if America changes. Or, better put, as if America is not a land of perpetual change.
I could only assume this was some sort of political commentary – the hills and valleys and monuments remains as they always were. And the greatest tragedy of social media has been its giving everybody an outsized view of the importance of their political position on this or that or the other subject. But, nonplussed, I set out to heed that advice.
I drove Route 66, from the dry arid sands of Phoenix and into the rugged gritty beauty of New Mexico through the heartland where one can get lost in the fields of waving grain and maize, never to be discovered. Passing by the Ozarks and the pockmarking of lakes: glorious mansions beside double-wides, pick-up trucks parked on the road beside Porsches. Onward, BBQ in Arkansas and into Virginia.
I went to Sleepy Hollow for Halloween, visited Washington Irving’s house and reveled in the tale of a horseman, well told, headless still as lost Ichabod remains in his never land. But Sleepy Hollow is also changed, it is now “little Santo Domingo” with a huge community of Dominican Republicans now walking paths where John Andre once conspired with Benedict Arnold; the monumental sepulchers of Rothschild and Carnegie sprinkled with names ending Ortega or Mendoza. A book fair, buying an old copy of Gibbon as my little boy peruses Dr. Seuss.
West Virginia for Christmas, along with Tennessee. Santa Clause along an old train, singing Christmas Carols over hot chocolate as loud as our lungs would allow. Luray Caverns, ancient underground orchestras of water and rock. Richmond, a showing of Fiddler on the Roof dedicated to the Ukrainians for whom history never ends.
Most recently the beach, the Florida panhandle – the “Redneck Riviera” with crystal waters and kind people who stop their cars and flash their lights for the guy with a beach chair and an umbrella and an icebox and his little boy trying to make it across the road to the beach. Marine rescue centers dedicated to teaching people about the wildlife in the oceans, to care for animals who can’t survive in the wild and to give their lives to the dolphins.
Heartbreak too, this year. Abandoning generational efforts in Afghanistan upon the wicked whims of a feckless President. Mass shootings. Political stress – when is there not? But I didn’t just see a mass shooting by a troubled and evil young man while the nation celebrated – I saw the 60,000 small donors giving $5 and $10 to raise $3,000,000 for a new orphan who will need every penny as he struggles to grow up. I saw the efforts of veterans groups and women’s rights activists and musicians tirelessly working to save as many Afghans as they could – because while we can’t save everybody, we can save the next person. I saw a national effort of Blue and Yellow raising billions and joining in lockstep to condemn an illegal and vicious invasion. I saw smiles of hotel staff and waiters; policemen guarding the innocent; lifeguards on patrol.
I saw a nation trying to move on from an epic event that killed 1,000,000 Americans, in the only way we Americans know how – by putting one foot in front of the other and beginning to rebuild. By dealing with the problems before us, not the challenge of grand national debates in which Twitter seems to make us believe we have a voice, but what kind of schooling we want for our children, what books they should be reading, and where they should go for the truth.
For all these reasons, the future belongs to America. DARPA is working on AI; we are going to put a fusion reactor in space; we are well on our way in the EV revolution. Epic things, as always, while in the diners and down the roadways people take off their masks to reveal a smile and an encouraging word. Driving over 6000 miles this year, I’ve never seen such bounty, never seen such beauty, never seen so many endless miles of green.
I am more optimistic now than I was reading the news from afar – America is as it always was; righting wrongs, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves, solving problems big and small that crop up in our daily lives through hard work and self-determination. I’m more optimistic than I have been in a while, and excited to see what the post-COVID period brings!
It isn’t often that you write a piece seasoned with optimism so it is nice to learn through your personal odyssey that America is as America ever was and will be, populated by heritage Americans and newly minted legal ones who value and appreciate the singular most successful nation on earth, despite the flaws and failures by which we have always been afflicted. America the beautiful.
Thanks Lynda!! Its true, I tend to be a little pessimistic. My only defense, I suppose, is my sojourns in war-torn lands makes me less sanguine. Though that is no defense. America is indeed blessed, we forget about this but getting out helps remind us that its a vast country with good people going about their lives in ways that are productive and constructive. Like you say, old and new alike!!!