In late August 2018 I set out to explore the Deep South and the Mountain West, taking a serpentine route down the middle spine of the Appalachians in West Virginia and Virginia, down to Charlotte, across the Smoky Mountains and out to Nashville, down the Nachez-Trace highway through Alabama and Mississippi, then turning northwest through Arkansas, out across Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle to Santa Fe, then just about due north to Durango, Silverton (via the Million Dollar Highway) and Steamboat Springs, before ambling eastward through the Black Hills and the Badlands on my way home.
I went to visit my far-flung children and was delighted to share in the rhythms of their unfolding adult lives, if only for a few days. I also journeyed to visit my country, to find out whether we remain one nation indivisible, or if we are now, in this season of chaos and rage, irrevocably divided along lines of Red and Blue.
Yellowstone is spectacular – so much so that waiting in line to enter it can be like idling on L.A.’s infamous I-10. And, when you do finally get in, you experience all that splendor with 75,000 or so new friends, many crawling along in RVs with tiny cars in tow.
Last week, I swept across the American South like the needle on an old-time radio dial – tracking west from about AM 650 to 1500. Starkville, Ms., to Amarillo, Tx. Nine hundred miles in one throw. That’s an adult portion. Whew.
There’s an interview segment in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s epic film of The Band’s farewell concert, when he asks Levon Helm to talk about how the rural Southland that raised him up shaped American music. Helm, the good old boy Arkansas polymath-singer-drummer extraordinaire, drawls: “That’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, back there…
The Nachez Trace Parkway is a miracle. So is finding it with your phone’s GPS. Since the Trace doesn’t have a route number, Siri sent me to and fro, to this side and that side of Nashville. Finally, after two hours of tracing and retracing interstates to the east, west and south, I got off the highway and asked an old farmer how to get there.
With the exception of Pittsburgh, where inter-generational families cling to each other like refugees in a lifeboat, a preponderance of Americans, particularly the college-educated, eventually leave their hometowns behind. You can find no end of sociological studies (and lamentations) online about the decline of the geographically proximate extended family.
In popular culture, youthful freedom begins when one is handed a set of car keys (or today’s far-less-romantic equivalent, a fob). But those of us of a certain age know that the car is only a promotion: Our first real taste of freedom had only two wheels.