There’s a point in any road trip when you realize that there is an acute chance you have lost your mind. It’s inevitable. Eventually, as the pavement flashes past and past and past and the kamikaze bugs slowly obscure all sight from your windshield, you begin to ponder thoughts of life and death, the endless expanse of time, and whether the meaning of life might truly be available for purchase in a truck stop gift shop.
We embarked on an ambitious road trip to see as much of the American Southwest as we could in the one week I was able to take off of work. Starting in Denver, we loaded up the car with camping equipment and drove straight through to the Grand Canyon, which my partner had insisted I absolutely needed to see in my lifetime.
“Isn’t it just a big hole in the ground?” I had repeatedly asked, much to his chagrin.
After discovering that the Grand Canyon was by far the most breathtaking hole in the ground imaginable, we moved on to Zion National Park, where our tent nearly blew away in a windstorm, then to Bryce Canyon National Park, where we squeezed into every piece of clothing we packed to get through a 28-degree night, and finally to Dead Horse Point State Park, which we used as a base for exploring both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Toward the end of the trip, we were understandably beginning to fade. Perhaps it was the rough, vast landscape that immersed our car; perhaps it was the effects of detoxing from a particularly caustic political season — whatever the cause, I had begun struggling with some ideas of nationalism and identity. This is my country, yet this was my first time seeing this particular corner of the nation. We drove through vast expanses of emptiness, Native American territories, resort ski towns, desert, forest, destitute small towns, and kitschy tourist traps — and every mile marker seemed to bring with it a new dose of culture shock.
Upon returning home, I found myself struggling to summarize what we had seen. How can I be so aware of the negative aspects of my government and still stand in complete awe of the country it presides over? The two ideas did not rest easily within me.
To pass the time in the car, we listened to a podcast about Robert F. Kennedy, and one of his political speeches recited on the show helped me find the answer within the contradiction. Bobby’s words from 1968 lilted me away into a sense of optimistic understanding.
“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
“It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
“And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
I’ll be honest, folks. It’s been difficult to feel pride in my country lately. I don’t need to summarize the news for you — things have been rough and show no sign of balancing out. It’s exhausting to care; it’s a slow death not to.
But I agree with my man Bobby. This country is something special. Not a manifest destiny sort of special. Not a world hegemony sort of special.
The sort of special that flashes before your eyes like the dashed road lines on an endless road trip: vital, overlooked, constant.