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Growing up in a working-class family in Minnesota is perhaps my greatest blessing. My dad started his own business later in life – after having a wife, three kids, and a mortgage, and not exactly during the robust economic times one might wait to roll the dice on one’s livelihood. But he and my mom made it work, with some sacrifices. We didn’t have trendy clothes or new cars or the latest gadgets. But we had a yearly road trip across the country in the family vehicle: a pink striped, GMC conversion van.
To my brothers and me, it was a Cadillac. It had velvet, mauve upholstery from top to bottom punctuated by track lighting along the middle that lit up the van at night like a mini airstrip on the ceiling. With my Dad driving and Mom navigating, us kids occupied the captain chairs and bench seat in the back. It wasn’t the typical, comfortable family roadster station wagon, but it took us where we needed to go, and it took me to see America.
Our family made one road trip a year to Tucson, AZ, where my maternal grandparents lived as “snowbirds” during the winter months. While other kids my age went to Cabo San Lucas to party and buy Señor Frog’s t-shirts, my parents, brothers, and I explored the Badlands, figured out who was buried in Boot Hill, and where in the heck Wall Drug was.
The route differed from year-to-year. Sometimes it was the straight shot south on Interstate 35, hanging a right when we hit Dallas. Other times it was west, out through the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and the open prairies of Kansas. Twice we stopped at the Logan County Fair outside Golden, CO. There was a foray into (and quickly out of) Las Vegas. We learned about the rich and tragic history of the westward expansion. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Crow Indians, Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, Custer’s Last Stand, and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There were herds of bison, and hitchhikers; rodeos and Mack trucks; prairie fires and construction cones.
What I saw and learned traveling the country from North Platte, NE, to Truth or Consequences, NM, is that this is America just as much as New York City, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC. People work in the diners, the banks, teach at the schools, and volunteer at the fire station. We in the middle of the country often don’t get our stories told unless it’s in the context of leaving those towns for New York City, Los Angeles, or DC. But it doesn’t make us less valuable nor our voices less powerful. For the past few decades, politics has driven a wedge between the seen and unseen in America. One end is a political class who use pedigree as a self-anointing hierarchy of rule-makers. Academics spend their lives writing case studies on socioeconomic inequality but never bother to live or talk to people experiencing poverty at the hands of years of trade inequality. Politicians assured us cheap manufacturing in China was worth the sacrifice of American jobs in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan. Modernists scoffed at traditional religion as an agent of oppression and sexism. Feminists raged at the patriarchy, ushering in a false promise of women’s “liberation” from the burdens of family.
When we look back on the spring and summer of 2020, remember the hard lesson that was learned, because those who lectured us from the safety of their news desks and behind lecterns while the rest of us suffered, tried to justify a one-size-fits-all policy to a wholly diverse nation. We are tired of the overbearing hubris of the well-heeled making claims of settled social science about the rest of us. There are endless studies and white papers about school-age children inextricably tied to technology telling us that social interactions don’t matter to them as much as past generations. Beating the social-engineering drum praising densely populated, urban cityscapes run by mass transit systems as the lifeblood of intelligence and innovation. Convincing us our society can cull what it needs from the young and productive, and the elderly or disabled have little inherent value.
What they got wrong was hiding in plain sight. The people who only travel outside their brownstone apartment except to make speeches on college campuses missed the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. It turns out kids across the country are truly missing a connection to each other without school and extracurricular activities. Open-air parks, beaches, wide streets for cars in the suburbs and rural areas might have acted as barriers to a virus that fed off people living elbow to elbow. Our elderly generation deserves more than to be living in death’s waiting room, and their families deserve more than excuses when they’re failed by the decisions of our leaders. Those of us living in the Red aren’t some strange species to be lectured about, studied, or scolded. We are just as much a part of America’s success and power and our voices deserve an equal hearing. The backroads of America tell the story of courage, sacrifice, grace, and compassion just as any high rise in New York or conference table in Washington.
I learned more about what it was to be an American and live in America on those trips. The great American road trip isn’t just about the historical landmarks and the battlefields and the national parks, I learned about who and what is in between. The truckers crisscrossing the interstates are the pipeline bringing us the food, goods, and livestock this country needs to sustain itself. There were families like ours out to explore the wide-open roads. We ran into modern-day Okies, their lives packed up in a truck headed for the hope of a better life in a new homestead. The occasional hitchhiker, head resting on his backpack, taking a nap in the shade of the overpass. There are little towns and cities scattered off the beaten path, just the blink of any eye when traveling by train, completely missed from the windows of an airplane.
Right now, there is a divide between those shuttling along the Acela Corridor and the rest of the country. At best they ignore “flyover” Americans, at worst they’re considered deplorables — one factory closure away from extinction. But the greatness of America defies that mentality. It isn’t political. It’s the desire for each of us to strive for a piece of the American Dream. And that looks different in New York City, or Tulsa, OK, or Sandy, UT. It’s the idea that each of us can pursue that which makes us happy and fulfilled.
It takes all sorts of Americans to be a successful nation. We find ingenuity, creativity, and productivity in our diversity, but only through a common belief that America is the last best hope for mankind will we succeed in this experiment of human nature. In the end, we’re all just trying to get from point A to point B. We can get there by different paths, but the goal must be the same.Published in