After I finished my travels down Route 66, I waited patiently for my earth-shattering revelations about life, America, and well, anything else people have earth-shattering revelations about after completing a journey such as mine.
But none came.
Instead, things seemed to slowly drip into my subconscious mind and only once they had become a part of my everyday life and activities was I truly aware of what I learned on the Mother Road.
First off, my natural independence has evolved into a more mature version of itself. Some call this “the Spirit of Adventure.” An American notion if there ever was one. I don’t know exactly how to describe this change within myself. All I can say is that I have always loved to explore things. I have always had the burning desire to travel the world and see everyone and everything in it. And now, I know I can do that. I know it’s ok if I take a wrong turn or get a little lost (I still prefer to call it wandering!).
During the school year when I just need to get away from classes and track and drama, I go for car rides. Sometimes with others. Sometimes alone. But, even on these rides, I’ve always stayed to tried and true routes. Not that there’s anything wrong with finding a peaceful place that you can go to when you need (in my case, Old Silver Beach down on the Cape). In fact, that’s usually one of the first things I do when I get to a new place- find somewhere to make my own. Everyone needs their comfort place. In L.A. that place for me is Malibu Lagoon Beach or the Grove mall, depending on the day.
But, I’ve also grown more adventurous, learned to push boundaries- maybe drive the wrong way on a one-way street or explore the many Los Angeles neighborhoods, talk to the people I meet along the way. One interesting character who lives on my street is an older gentleman (I think). He always has on make-up though and I really think he might be a transvestite. He’s very friendly though, always says hi! I look forward to seeing him on my runs through the neighborhood. Actually, people here are generally quite nice. Surprising, since we’re in a city. But most of them will say hello. It’s in the neighborhoods that you make friends.
Along with the independence has come a growing self-reliance.
Emerson and Thoreau would be so proud!
Unfortunately I had to move out of my first apartment rather unexpectedly. The place was a mess, the girls were a bit cold, and I was unhappy from the beginning. But I thought I could stick it out for six weeks. I mean, I was getting so good at just going out at night to explore, after all! But then an exterminator found an infestation of bed bugs in our apartment, explaining the mysterious bites I had been getting for a few days. That was the last straw for me! I was out within an hour! I’ll admit, it was a huge adrenaline rush! Moving out so fast, not knowing where I would be for the night, not knowing how long it would take me to find new housing. A drastic measure I might never have taken had it not been for my experience driving 66. But the Road taught me that sometimes you have to take chances. There isn’t always a sign to point you on your way. You learn to just follow your heart and trust that things will work out.
And work out they did. It was a bit of a rough weekend for me. My uncle had died earlier that week and now I was homeless. But I got lucky that I have friends in the area, one of whom very generously offered me a place to sleep for Friday night. The next day I was back in the courtyard of my office Downtown, stealing their wireless internet, trying to find a new place to live. I made phone calls, I placed ads, and I found a wonderful new place to live! I have to say though, that whole experience was an interesting study of American culture. Only one girl replied to my post- the girl I am currently living with. All the rest of my replies came from single men ranging in age from 20 to about 45. All living alone…you see where this is going? One guy went so far as to send me a picture of his naked torso with the offer of free rent in exchange for sexual favors. I thought about ignoring it. But decided it would be more fun to reply. I simply told him he’s a pig and I have better abs than he does anyways. All right…maybe I my response was a little more strongly worded than that…But it put him in his place! I never heard back from him. Sad, I kind of would have liked to continue to give him a piece of my mind on that issue…
I’ve learned that I can travel thousands of miles by myself in a rinky-dink car and make it out alive. Wow. Some days I still don’t believe that I actually did that!
And what have I learned about America? A lot of things.
For one, we are a people who demand our voices be heard.
Everyone has a story to tell and everyone is clamoring to tell it. Everyone has an opinion about something. We are a people of causes and moral battles. However, we are also a people who are incredibly bad at listening. We all want to be heard, but we are unwilling to listen to anyone else if they do not agree with us! What a shame. We could accomplish so much if we would stop being so darn combative!
We’re so dramatic, us Americans! We really are. Listen to any talk radio. Especially the radio shows in the Midwest and Southwest. The country is going to Hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing we can do to change anything. Maybe the reason I’m always in such a rush and have no patience with my own life is because I’ve been raised on radio and TV that makes such a big deal of small matters. It’s always either do or die. We have no patience with our lives, no ability to see the big picture if the details don’t follow our beliefs.
Second, despite the stereotypes about Americans and what I’ve discovered about how stubbornly we stick to our ideals, I truly believe we are a nation of good people.
Take the day I was stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire. Sure, most people drove by. But one man stopped. One man reached out to me and made sure I was ok. And it was the same everywhere I went. A waitress at one of the restaurants I stopped in took an interest in me, the lone traveler. She chatted with me, made sure I got everything I needed, asked me about my trip. Take the people you will meet in national parks- the Grand Canyon most especially. Everyone is taking everyone else’s pictures, asking them about their trip, helping someone climb up a steep slope, pointing out good viewpoints. Take the cowboy I met in Texas, the one who owned the horse motel. He could easily have chased me off. But he took the time to give me a tour of the place, answer all my questions. Yes, I know there are crazy people living in this country, the news reminds us of that every day. And my own discomfort at the hotel in Oklahoma is proof enough of that for me! But in general, Americans are good people, I believe. I’ve had enough helping hands and friendly faces along the way to say that.
I’ve been having a hard time writing this post. I’ll get something written, save it, look at it later, decide I hate it, erase, start over…it’s been a painful process. How can I possibly wrap up this trip?
I’ve had a few rough weeks here in L.A. You know what you learn when you go through weeks when it feels like nothing you do is the right thing? You learn to just be honest with yourself and trust what your heart is telling you. (Although, sometimes it helps if you use a little brain power too) I have been trying to make my last post on 66 into some grand philosophy on life and America. But I have no grand philosophy for you. What is that quintessential American quality? I can’t say for sure. I expected it to smack me in the face, I think. I mean, isn’t that what is supposed to happen when you embark on a trip such as mine? Shouldn’t I have found all those answers to the great questions of life while I was out there in the desert?
All I can truly say is that the United States is an amazing country. Our coasts are separated by over 3,000 miles and countless regional differences. But we all have a dream. The so-called American Dream may just be a pipe dream. So many people in America work so incredibly hard for years and years. And still, they will never achieve “greatness.” There is only space for a few of us at the top. But, we all still dream. We dream for ourselves. We dream for our children. We dream for our children’s children.
We have high moral standards. As much as people talk about how this country is going down the tubes, the reaction to the BP oil spill shows that we do still have a collective heart. The fact that we have and continue to hold the government accountable, regardless of what party we support, shows that we still believe in Democracy the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it- as a way to serve the people.
America is known for it’s big cities. Cities are the portals to our nation for immigrants, and the portals to success for people looking to make it big in the world. But the heart of America, I believe, is in our smaller communities. Places where everyone knows everyone. Places where people work hard. And play hard. People care about each other in these communities. This is true even in the urban neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. In a country as large as America, it is comforting to have a home base. A place to love and be proud of. Gary Robinson, a Raymond Crip Original-turned-gang intervention worker is as proud of his West Athens community and the changes they’ve seen as I am of my small redneck Virginia town of Crozet. In an age where people seem to be more and more separated from each other, it will be the home-town pride that can connect us. It is something we can all understand.
And Americans all still dream, even those people who never make it more than 30 miles from their birthplace. People I talked to along the way were fascinated by my project. They all wanted to know what I had seen, what I would do out West. Call it a road trip. Call it a pilgrimmage. Call it sheer insanity. The coming-of-age journey still captures the American psyche. We love to tell stories. And to hear them. We love tales of travelers. We still believe in “getting out” and “finding yourself” on the road. Most Americans will never make a trip such as mine. But they will read about it. They will look at photographs of it. They will watch movies about it. They will sing songs and write poems about it. In their own imaginations, they too will traverse the Road.
We are an amazing nation. The first colonists from England hit Virginia’s shores a mere 403 years ago. And look at what we have done in such a short time! Sure, we have our problems. I could never pretend everything was perfect. But, compared to so many other places in the world, we are doing just fine! We are a nation of immigrants. Even the Native Americans had to cross that land barrier to get here. We are a nation of natural wonders. The Grand Canyon, the Appalachians, the cliffs of the Pacific Northwest…and everything in between.
So what are Americans? What ties us all together? We are caring, loving, a little cheesy at times, cynical at others, intense, laid back, irrational, passionate. We are Bruce Springsteen and a summer night. We are a New England cottage. We are Redwood and Sequoia trees. We are Miami, Las Vegas, and the Kentucky Derby. We are soulfood! We are laughter and family.
There is no other country in the world like us.
We are the nation of the Mustang Horse. That wild spirit that Ford attributes to his cars and that is so often attributed to the American people as a whole. Untamed. Unique. Tough. Stubborn. Wise. Beautiful.
This is America. This is what I have found.