[27 days to take off. This is the last section of a Preface to our trip that I wrote in March, 2013, as I began to believe that Colleen, the boys, and I would really be able to take a year off from work and travel the US. More blog posts will follow about getting ready to leave, and then, we pray, about the trip itself. ]
My mother and father were part of that great generation who, with the opening of the great highway system, embraced the family vacation as tradition, the road trip as part education and part entertainment, but fully a moment of a family being a family. The same is true for Colleen and her parents. So she and I hope for the same thing for our sons. And though there have been years in which we were not able to take vacations on the road, those that we have taken—again mostly in the Southeast, but there was one through the New Mexico and another to Colorado—have been wonderful moments in our marriage and family life. I want my sons to have, because of this year, a storehouse of memories, and if not a changed perspective on the world (once I was lost and now I am found), at least one informed by having been someplace other. In some senses, the “other” doesn’t matter, just some place other than Austin, and some place other than Texas. But because I believe this—and perhaps I believe it because I have traveled the US and very little elsewhere—I want them to have an appreciation for the story of the United States.
And now I come to one more realization about this trip—probably not my last since we are still counting down the months until we take off. My worries over tourists, migrants, and nomads are a little off base. I still like the idea of being a nomad, but next year Colleen and I and the boys will also be pilgrims. I am not thinking of our pointy-hatted tight-assed friends in Massachusetts, though they are called Pilgrims for a reason. Rather, I am thinking of all individuals who are on a journey in search of meaning, or in hopes of paying due respect to that which they owe their allegiance, or their lives. My family’s pilgrimage will be to many, many places, but the goal will be singular, to pay our respect to this country and allowing its story to wash over us, to clean us, to renew us. Maybe we will morph somehow into Chaucer’s storytellers; certainly, we will be tempted to purchase random and bogus relics from our saints and sacred places.
I am unsure if I believe in the fullness of the concept of American exceptionalism, but I do believe the U.S. has an exceptional story. While there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, I embrace the myth of America as a country with open arms, enormous energy and creativity, powerful wills, and with a reluctant but steady acceptance of all peoples, no matter how different they may appear at first glance. I hope my sons will learn enough on this trip, for this myth to become imbued into their fiber as citizens. In America, anything is possible. As my parents used to say to me, maybe one day my sons could become president. “This land is my land, this land is your land.”
Maybe we are too late, maybe not, to see this exceptionalism. But in the mid-nineteenth century a literary movement began outside the cities of the East Coast that eventually spread throughout the nation, a movement called simply “local color.” It basically meant that writers throughout the United States and its territories discovered that they did not have to write about England and Europe or about life in Boston or New York or Washington, D. C. There were people and places right near them, their neighbors, who were the containers of wise and wonderful lessons. Mark Twain is the most famous of these writers, but there are dozens of them from Maine to California from Florida to Michigan. They were White and Black and Native American. As time passed and local color became known in the depression era as regionalism, these story tellers were joined by Hispanics and Mexican Americans and Asians from many home countries. “Got a dream to take them there / They’re coming to America.”
What this literature has taught me is both sides of the concepts contained in our motto: E Pluribus Unum. The United States is a large nation with many geographical regions and each geographical region has its history. Sometimes a particular group of people moved to that region—i.e., the Puritan Separatists settled in Massachusetts and Anglicans settled in Virginia. New England and Virginia are different because of who settled there, what customs and beliefs they brought with them. Out of each region have come traditions, and customs, and literature and art. Yet all of this is America. Hockey or basketball or football or soccer. Subs or tacos, beef barbecue or pork, or salmon. Ranch houses or adobe or three-story flats or highrises. It’s all America. In five months, we’re hitting the road. It’s going to be a long trip, so it’s time to get healthy and to see what’s next. “All gone to look for America.”
Soundtrack: Merle Travis, "I Am a Pilgrim."