Mary GrayThe heart & soul of America

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.

Uluru surrounded by an uncharacteristically green plain

Uluru surrounded by an uncharacteristically green plain

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?

Disney Americas Heart and Soul poster

Disney Americas Heart and Soul poster

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.)

Brady Bunch camp at the Grand Canyon

Brady Bunch camp at the Grand Canyon

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.

Great Plains Eastern New Mexico 2004

Great Plains Eastern New Mexico 2004

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.

Cimarron grassland

Cimarron grassland

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.”

Dad and me!

Dad and me!

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.

Great Plains west of Kearney

Great Plains west of Kearney

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?

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7 thoughts on “The heart & soul of America

  1. Jennifer Stackhouse on said:

    Mary – Sadly I’ve never been to the US but for me the iconic American landscape I most want to see is the East Coast in the Fall! May be one October… Jennifer

  2. Mary Gray on said:

    Fall on the east coast — especially New England — is spectacular. I hope you can get there some day. The other area where I’ve never been and would like to is the Deep South…probably not on everybody’s to-do list but I am such a fan of Southern literature and the South has such a powerful history, I can’t imagine that doesn’t manifest itself in the landscape.

    The only place in Australia I have visited is Sydney, but now after reading Catherine’s piece about Uluru I desperately want to see the interior.

  3. Mary, I know exactly what you mean about the open plains of the US. My husband were lucky enough 30 years ago to spend five months travelling across the States from Miami across the south to New Orleans, up to Kansas, then east through Missouri, north to Washington and NYC, then Chicago, trained to Seattle, down west Coast through Oregaon to San Franciso, Los Angeles, turned in again to go to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and back west …. many thousands of miles by car, bus, train and enjoyed many amazing experiences of America and Americans in all their varieties.
    I would say the prairie states were truly memorable; space and emptiness and miles of waving crops and Ford pickups! We also will never forget the Black Hills (mountains) of Dakota, the Mississippi, the redwood forests of California and indeed the Grand Canyon. You have many spiritual icons so it is hard to single one out. Julie

  4. Peter Goslett on said:

    I agree with Julie. I happen to live in one of the “outer boroughs” of New York City right now; in Queens. It’s about 20 minutes from Manhattan. I have lived in New Jersey, in Philadelphia, in Texas, in Manhattan, and in San Francisco. there is no really iconic US location. I have travelled by car, with my family, down the east coast of the US, into Mexico, across Mexico, up into the Western States, into California, then across the top of the country back into Canada, where we were living at the time. It is all spectacular! There’s no one place that says “the US” more than any other. The Deep South is wonderful; New Orleans and Texas are splendid; Arizona and New Mexico are breathtaking. Utah is glorious. There is not one place that really says: “This is the United States.” Sure, there are landmarks and icons, Yellowstone, Yosemite; the Black Hills of Dakota, Mt. Rushmore; The Alamo, but they are all a collective wonderful place to be.
    However, having said that, I was a teenaged hitch-hiker around Australia, oh so many moons ago; Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Uluru, Darwin, then down through Queensland, and, after a couple of years, back to Sydney. Again a spectacular place! Again, lots of icons, there’s not a whole lot that can beat the Australian Outback. You go to sleep in the desert one night, where it’s parched and arid, and there’s an Oh So slight dewy precipitation, just enough to dampen your sleeping bag, and halway through the morning, the desert’s a riot of colour from all the flowers that have just been lying in wait for a little water! Nothing is as wondrous as that!

    • Mary Gray on said:

      You paint a beautiful picture of the outback here, Peter, except for the damp sleeping bag! :0)

      • Hi Peter – I’m more your lazy, minimum 3 stars kind of traveller, but if camping out under the stars surrounded by ephemeral wildflowers is your thing, think about an August trip to Sth Africa to Namaqualand, as Leon talked about in his blog. Watch his fantastic little video as it reveals the wildflowers.

  5. Mary Gray on said:

    Wow! What an amazing trip! Taking five months to travel cross country is something I would loooooove to do some day. You have seen more of this country than most Americans! Thanks for reading Julie!

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