If you had to choose one place in the United States that you felt all Americans should visit, one landscape or landmark representative of the “American ethos”, what would it be? I started pondering that question last week after reading Catherine Stewart’s story about her pilgrimage to Uluru (more familiar to us Americans as Ayers Rock), the giant monolith located smack dab in the middle of the Australian continent.
Stewart describes the spiritual significance of Uluru for the indigenous people of Australia, but emphasizes that the great rock is equally revered by “non-indigenous” Australians, and even describes Uluru as an Australian Mecca, a place that many Australians feel they must see at least once in their lifetimes.
So this got me to thinking…does America have such a place? Is there some iconic landmark out there that stands above all the others as a representative of our nation’s soul and character? Is there an American Uluru?
Many places came to mind. Sadly, the first one that popped into my head was Disneyworld, since I actually hear people talk about the Magic Kingdom as though it were some sort of Holy Land. Some folks are shocked to hear that I’ve never been there, and are positively horrified to learn that I have no plans to take my kid there, either. (He still doesn’t know Disneyworld exists, nor does he know about Chuck E. Cheese. And I am fine with that.)
Anyway, the Grand Canyon would be a contender, I suppose. Certainly it’s an awe-inspiring bit of geology and a vacation destination for many Americans. The Brady Bunch even went there for three episodes (remember, Bobby and Cindy got lost in the canyon and were led to safety by an Indian boy? Classic!) But, I don’t know….I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the “quintessential” American landscape, or representative of “the American character” if such a thing exists.
Another place that occurs to me is Alaska. When I visited Alaska back in 1997, it overwhelmed me, it took my breath away. Alaska is immense, frighteningly beautiful, and still truly wild. And I do believe that “wildness” has been an important influence on the American identity.
But Alaska is so far away from most Americans — both geographically and psychologically — that I’m not sure it could ever be an “American Mecca.”
What I’ve concluded is that the iconic American landscape isn’t necessarily a giant canyon or a towering peak or any bit of extreme natural splendor, which we are certainly blessed to have in spades.
Rather, I think we need to look, as the Australians do, toward our nation’s interior.
I believe that every American should experience the Great Plains at least once in his or her lifetime.
Of course, a flyover wouldn’t count. I’m not even sure going by train would be good enough. You have to go by car, at your own pace, either by yourself or with just a couple of others. You have to pull off the interstate from time to time onto a dirt road and immerse yourself in the corn and/or wheatfields that surround you.
You have to try to take in the giant sky, and the clouds, and the wind sweeping across the grasses.
So many of us are huddled on the coasts in big packs and have never truly experienced Wide Open Space. We often dismiss the Great Plains and the Midwest, maybe giving it a nod for its agricultural contribution and that’s about it. Maybe you did a project about Westward Expansion or Lewis and Clark back in grade school (mine was a covered wagon made out of a Diamond matchbox) but haven’t thought about the Plains states much since then.
A co-worker of mine rode cross-country on his motorcycle this summer and came back to DC with a deep reverence for the Plains states. He said, “when you’re out there, you can kind of understand why they [the residents of the Plains] don’t want to have much to do with the government or the big cities. You feel totally on your own out there, and resent anybody trying to tell you how to live.”
When I was in my teens and twenties, I took many trips across the Great Plains with my father and brother. One time, we made a pitstop in the middle of the Kansas prairie and my dad and brother thought they’d play a cute trick on me. They said they were just going to turn the car around (it was a narrow dirt road) to aim it back toward the highway, but they actually drove away and left me standing there, all alone.
Now, I knew they were coming back, but as the car disappeared behind a puff of dust, the weirdest, loneliest feeling came over me. I am an Easterner, used to dense settlement and limited views, so the expansiveness of my surroundings really hit home in that moment. The golden fields and the blue sky were beautiful, yes, but it was the feeling of space and infinity and aloneness that really dazzled me. That, and the clean, warm air and the clouds like leviathans overhead.
I have to say, I felt a stronger sense of transcendence in that Kansas prairie than on any of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, which was where we were headed. In fact, that moment of golden aloneness remains, to this day, one of my most vivid travel memories.
Traveling through the Great Plains not only puts you back in touch with America’s history and its agricultural heritage, it reminds you that there are still places that seem to be unbounded, places where you can truly be alone under a wide sky. This, to me, is quintessentially American.
What do you all think? If you were to choose the iconic American landscape, what would it be?