Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In Search of a Sense of Place. July 10, 2007.

In Search of a Sense of Place
RAH from Washington

July 10, 2007

Martin Luther, American.

Martin Luther was one of the greats, whose preaching and writing has made a huge impression on the United States of America.

No, I did not leave off the last name. Martin Luther King indeed had a great impact on America, but it is his namesake that inspires this particular meditation on the city of Washington and the United States of America this Fourth of July week.

What makes America America? Or, generally, what makes a place a place?

Significant geography, geology, physical characteristics: location, location, location.

Also significant historical events, important people, people in general; what people do here and have done here. What people think about here.

A book has come out comparing the United States and its capital to Rome. The history and thought of Greece, Rome, Israel and Europe all have exerted their influence on the United States. This influence is easily discovered, not to mention that of Africa, Asia and countless other histories and thought-forms. America is a melting pot, a salad-bowl, a crucible. And, unquestionably, America is a free country.

Today let me give Luther his due. Without him, there would be no United States, or Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King speaking about freedom from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Luther’s understanding of Freedom and Love, in brief, are what transformed the medieval world and more than any other ideas, or forces, led to all of us in America being here and now, July of 2007, with a capital on the banks of the Potomac. Let me trace this trajectory by means of a picture and a story.

Two years ago I was asked to lecture at the State Department School of Foreign Service on the history of religion in America because our press and cultural affairs officers were getting a lot of questions on this topic. I could think of no better way to begin than by showing the cover of the paperback edition of Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness. The cover shows a parting of the clouds and a pilgrim in classic garb in the palm of God’s hand. It is a simple, crude, even childlike, yet almost breathtaking drawing for it well conveys a sense of America as God’s chosen land and Americans as God’s chosen people.

In the introduction to the book, Miller tells how he got interested in the New England Mind and its continuing influence on America and the world: “To bring into conjunction a minute event in the history of historiography with a great one: it was given to Edward Gibbon to sit disconsolate amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and to have thrust upon him the ‘laborious work ‘of The Decline and Fall while listening to barefooted friars chanting responses in the former temple of Jupiter.”

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) served in the British Army and was in Rome around the time of what the Europeans call the Seven Years and Americans call the French and Indian War (1760-something). After this experience he wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which, in short, he blamed Christianity for the fall of the Rome. As Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the best and the brightest became leaders of the church rather than going into the military or into the government and the ancient Roman virtues and martial spirit fell away, or so he argued.

“It was given to me,” continues Miller, “equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States, while supervising, in that barbaric tropic, the unloading of drums of case oil flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America. . . . What I believe caught my imagination, among the fuel drums, was a realization of the uniqueness of the American experience; even then I could dimly make out the portent for the future of the world, looking upon these tangible symbols of the republic’s appalling power. I could see no way of coping with the problem except by going to the beginning. . . . The beginning I sought was inevitably – being located in the 17th century – theological.”

He wrote this in 1956 of an experience that had taken place thirty years earlier, in 1926. There is much irony, of which Miller was certainly aware, in this juxtaposition of Gibbon blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome and Miller, a self-avowed atheist, crediting Christianity for the rise of America, for providing the innermost propulsion for the Republic’s appalling power.

What was the result of Perry Miller’s quest? What did provide the innermost propulsion? I believe the answer in brief is these two words, much meditated upon by Paul, Luther, Calvin and the Reformers, and ultimately Abraham Lincoln and every living American: freedom and love, especially freedom. The quest for freedom is what America has been about from the very beginning and it is what Christianity was about from the very beginning. I know this sounds rather audacious, but try it on for size.

Admittedly, Jesus did not use the word “freedom” very much, just twice, once in Matthew and once in John, for five uses of the Greek word “eleutheros” altogether. “Eleutheros,” by the way, has become a botanical term which reveals the meaning of this word: It means, simply, “wild, “ as in eleuthero ginseng, wild ginseng, which grows all over the northeastern United States. It’s the best ginseng root in the world, I might add.

But it is no exaggeration to say that freedom was of utmost importance for Paul. Paul uses the word “freedom” in his writings over twenty times and it is a key concept in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. In Paul’s understanding Jesus sets us free from sin, free from the fear of death, free from death itself. If Paul were here to be questioned on the matter he might say that Jesus did not talk about freedom much, but He WAS freedom, and love, and a lot of other qualities besides. He embodied freedom and love and made it possible for us to exercise both. There is some speculation that his preaching about freedom is what landed Paul in jail and eventually got him executed. For freedom has not always and everywhere been viewed as positively as we Americans do. Freedom is often confused with license and this confusion can lead to dangerous consequences.

To go back to the beginning, here is what Paul wrote to the Galatians:
Galatians 5: 1: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.
14: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

This talk of freedom, and love, did not languish in the Bible unnoticed, but it really achieved salience when a young German monk named Martin Luther studied the letters of Paul intensively and extensively and based his rebellion against the papacy upon it. Quite early in his tumultuous life as a reformer, in the tumultuous year of 1520, Luther penned a letter to Pope entitled:

On the Freedom of a Christian - Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen

In this letter, Luther claimed that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God's law, the Old Testament law, or any law; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. The core meaning of the Gospel, according to Luther is that Christians are free to love.

The exact two sentences from the German are:
A Christian is a free lord over all things, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all things, subject to all.

This work is very forcefully written (in German; the Latin is surprisingly different) in paragraphs beginning: Firstly. Secondly. Thirdly. And so on, paragraph after paragraph until, finally, ‘Thirtiethly.’ No introduction, no conclusion. It ends with ‘Amen.’ You can imagine Luther’s fist banging on the lectern as he makes his points, one after the other. He also attached to this letter a clever, cheeky, outrageous introduction and, without waiting for a reply – I don’t think he expected one - printed thousands of copies in both Latin and German. It sold like hotcakes. Then, basically, he had to run for his life.

This act – Luther defining Christians as free persons bound to each other by love, not by fear of a sovereign - was the beginning of the modern understanding of human beings as citizens, not subjects. It was rightly considered revolutionary in its time and of course it was and is, still revolutionary, audacious.

Freedom and love, love of freedom, being free to love, are what have provided the innermost propulsion to these United States and the American people. This spirit of reformation transmitted itself through Calvin to the New England Puritans and it soaked into the American soil and it has born a rich harvest with astounding consequences, from our great Civil War to barrels of American oil being unloaded in the Congo in 1926, to Americans landing on beaches from Normandy to Guadalcanal, to American culture recognized, for good or ill, as friend or foe, throughout the world we live in.

This spirit of reformation has been articulated by many Americans, but by no one so well as America’s answer to Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln. It is a commonplace of religious studies that America has produced a lot of religion but not many great theologians, that religion has thrived in America while theology has gone bankrupt. This statement, while clever, is seen as less true when you understand that America’s greatest theologian is disguised as America’s greatest president.

Now I do not claim that Lincoln read Luther – he probably didn’t. But he did read the Bible assiduously, especially as the Civil War dragged on. And while he never joined a church, he did attend one throughout the war, quite regularly, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church downtown. I do claim that this Reformation understanding of freedom and love had simply soaked into American culture at the time and emerged in Lincoln’s speeches with astounding clarity and power.

At Gettysburg in November of 1863 Lincoln concluded his two minute address with a one-paragraph peroration:
“It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – through love be servants of one another - - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .”

After a terrible civil war, he promised us a new birth of freedom.

In so doing he reiterated what he had already said in his Second Message to Congress in December of 1862:
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

And what he already said in an extemporaneous speech he gave on February 21, 1861 to a crowd gathered at Independence Hall, Philadelphia:
“I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was kept this confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance . . . . “

Freedom for Lincoln and I believe for Americans in general, is somewhat akin to the Hebrew notion of Shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the presence of something precious and essential for human life. Likewise freedom is not just the absence of constraints, but the presence of human dignity, a quality that we treasure for ourselves and recommend to all people. Freedom is the prerequisite virtue for all other virtues. Lincoln and so may other Americans essentially secularized the concept of Christian freedom and made it the law of the land and the cornerstone of the American way.

How appropriate then MARTIN LUTHER King arose not long ago to claim freedom for all Americans, his voice ringing like the Liberty Bell from the steps of Lincoln’s Memorial, proclaiming freedom throughout the land.

The short story of American history is that America fights for freedom. Our war memorials all over Washington demonstrate this. Let me just mention one to get us up to date, the most recent one, the World War II Memorial on 17th St. at the heart of the National Mall.

In my opinion this World War II Memorial makes too many statements, yet it is starting to blend into the site and the fountains are quite beautiful. Amidst a number of statements engraved on the walls, we find one that is almost spine-chilling in its resonance:

“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

The author of this terse and tough-minded quotation is none other than George C. Marshall. If we remember that this General Marshall was also the author of the Marshall Plan, we get a sense of what freedom means in America. Freedom is not just absence of conflict or absence of foreign control, but the presence of well-being. Marshall recognized that if we did not help Europe economically, Europe would not remain free.

We cannot read his statement now without being stunned into philosophy, especially if we walk along the reflecting pool to ponder the memorials to Korean and Vietnam War veterans, or read the newspaper. American power is not overwhelming. The wilderness of America is not inexhaustible.

We do not know how the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out. However they do, I think it important to remember at the beginning of this summer that America, the Idea of America and the ideals of America will remain strong. America will remain a free country and we will remain a free people; and a free people working together may not always be overwhelming but are certainly unconquerable; and the love of God will remain inexhaustible.

It was Martin Luther who brought these ideas from Saint Paul to the fore: for freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore in freedom, and with freedom, love.

Martin Luther, American. America would be a far different place without him.

Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

Washington to San Francisco

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington, DC to San Francisco Bay.
Summer, 2001.

By Richard Allen Hyde

1. Washington to South Bend
2. Lake Michigan and Chicago
3. Across the Prairies and Plains
4. Over the Rockies: Fort Collins to Salt Lake
5. Through the Desert: from the Salt Lake to the Sierra
6. The Golden Hills of California

Washington. July, 2007.

I drove across the country six years ago, in July of 2001, from Washington, DC to Berkeley, California. Having made the trip before and knowing that long periods of boredom awaited, I decided to make an informal study of the different places I noticed as I went along.

How many distinct places are there along this route? People talk about East Coast, Midwest, South and the West Coast. Clearly that is not all, but what else is there exactly? I knew that I would start out in Washington and end up somewhere else, but where exactly does the Washington area end and somewhere else begin? How many “somewhere elses” would I notice? And how would I know? Since I did not have a lot of time, I decided to keep the study simple and rely for clues upon what I could see from the road, hear on the radio and read in the local newspapers. This is the trip that began my search for a sense of place.

1. Washington to South Bend, July 2001.

I start out on a warm and sunny July 1st, 2001 driving slowly up Connecticut Avenue, where I came to get a tire fixed before departing. I have only lived in Washington for two years, but have been a frequent visitor for much of my life and have long considered it my second home. Shouldn’t a nation’s capital always be a second home to its citizens? I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the National Mall. For the better part of five years I read books and monographs about the city, its history and its monumental core. I spent several months walking around it and interviewing visitors to the three monuments at its westernmost end, the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean Veterans Memorials. Finally I moved here. During all this time, I lived in the vicinity of Connecticut Avenue, rode the subway line underneath it, shopped along it, and visited friends nearby.

I wind around Chevy Chase Circle and know therefore that I have left Washington for Maryland, although no sign informs me of this fact. The transition from the city itself to the suburbs at this point is seamless. But I soon reach the clear line of transition, Interstate 495, more often known as “The Beltway.” Although it did not exist until the 1960s, it is now a physical, psychological and proverbial barrier that separates Washington insiders from the rest of the country and the world.

The late morning, traffic moves along quite well and I am soon on Interstate 270, heading northwest towards Hagerstown, a name I hear every day because Hagerstown is one of the locations of WETA, my favorite NPR station in the Washington area. I hear its name every day. There I will link up with I-70, then I-76, then I-80 in a gradual west-northwestern movement that will lead me to South Bend, Indiana.

I listen to WETA’s classical music and news on the hour until I get somewhere north and west of Hagerstown, where the interstate climbs and loops into heavily forested hills and I am clearly not in Washington any more. I have left a place, people, roads and buildings that have become familiar and wander in the unfamiliar again, winding along shaded valley floors, skirting wooded hills and rising over the gaps between. Soon I lose the signal in scratchy and piercing atmospherics. I spin the dial, hit the scan button actually, dials having long since disappeared from radio faces, and find only loud rock and roll, a few other loud and obnoxious musical genres that I cannot quite categorize, even louder advertising jingles, and a smarmy evangelist, so I turn the radio off and give my attention to the transition between the East Coast and whatever part of the country you might call this. I am not on the coast – there obviously is no ocean anywhere near here. Where am I then?

I decide that I am in the Appalachians, the low hills and mountains that mark the end of coastal cities and their related sprawl. These low mountains certainly are a region of their own, stretching the length of the Appalachian Trail from Lookout Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. One might say that the East Coast is a region united and bounded by the ocean and the mountains, and still divided by the Potomac, the northern limit of the Confederacy.

After a few hours, I stop for gas and discover a small farmer's market in the parking lot: table upon table covered with apples, pies, cookies, bread and muffins. The white labels on the plastic-wrapped goodies list the ingredients under a horse and buggy logo with the words "Amish Baked Goods." I can't think of a clearer way to mark the transition into central Pennsylvania, a region of which I know little, except that it is farm country and that it is a distinct region of which the locals are proud. I have read that Pennsylvania is the state containing the highest percentage of residents who were born there.

But I have no time to linger. I return to my car and continue west-northwest, enjoying my Amish baked goods as I drive. Soon I leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 76 for Interstate 80, a seamless connection. I have left the radio off since eastern Pennsylvania, listening instead to Seamus Heaney read his new translation of Beowulf on tape. It is not long before I lose interest in this tale of ancient warriors and monsters – perhaps I would find it more interesting if I were sitting by the fire of a cold winter evening - and turn it off before it ends, noticing when I do that I have curved north around the Pittsburgh area without thinking of public radio, or even noticing that I was anywhere near Pittsburg.

Somewhere near the Ohio border, the hills and woodlands flatten and thin. The land stretches away to a more distant horizon and I am in much more open country, the vast farmland that stretches from here to somewhere beyond the Mississippi: the Midwest, America's heartland. There is a book of that name – The Heartland - that tells the early history of this region, the stories of the explorers and the explored, Marquette, Joliet, Hennepin, Pontiac, whose names are left behind on the cities, counties and automobiles of the region. I am surprised that it takes only five hours to leave the crooked inlets of the winding roads of the eastern mountains to arrive in the broad, flat farm country of the Midwest.

Soon I come near enough to Cleveland to pick up a pre-game show that airs before the Indians play that evening, but cannot find a public radio station. Another 100 miles pass and I pick up good classical music from a small Christian college station near South Bend. The sunshine and music continue until the sky in front of me turns orange, then red, purple, and deep blue. I pull into South Bend, to have dinner with two of my favorite Notre Dame graduates, about 9 o'clock. It being Monday night, nothing is open in downtown South Bend, so we have to drive out to the periphery, where much, if not most, of South Bend's commerce takes place, Monday or any other night, at a series of undistinguished strip malls. South Bend often looks closed after dark; tonight it just looks, and is, more closed than usual.

I skate around the campus the next day. Inline skates take up little space in the car and provide a great way to get some exercise and more direct experience of a place. Notre Dame is not as complete a complete Gothic playground as Yale, the University of Chicago or Princeton. Most of the buildings are a plainer, yellow brick Gothic, the bricks of local provenance. Yet the buildings arranged in several quadrangles create a sense of intimacy that embodies the nature of the university quite well. There are many statues and objects of art distributed here and there, not to mention the famous grotto, which is a copy of the one at Lourdes. It seems to belong here, even though there isn’t a real cave within hundreds of miles and the stones had to be hauled in from even further. The most famous statue, of course, is the lady on the golden dome, facing south along the central axis of the campus towards the main entrance. If the campus were a cathedral, the Our Lady would be on the high altar looking down the nave.

2. Lake Michigan and Chicago

After a few peaceful days at Notre Dame over the Fourth of July, my next goal is Chicago. The drive is short and easy, under four hours, along highways I know well. I stop halfway at the Indiana Dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan for a swim. I have known the beaches and trails here since childhood. I grew up in the Midwest, in the suburbs of Minneapolis and Chicago. Although I have spent most of my adult life in New England, California and now Washington, this region will always be home.

The Midwest, contrary to what many suppose, is not entirely flat. Most of it is broad, rolling hills, even this part along the southern border of the Great Lakes. The land I see along the interstate is a steady succession of fields divided irregularly by trees in shallow valleys. The blessing of the Midwest is the Lakes, which cool the region somewhat in the summer and moderate it in the winter. Like the ocean itself, these fresh water seas mirror the season's moods: dark, gray, turbulent and dangerous in the winter; soft, soothing and cerulean blue in the summer.

I spend a few hours on the beach at the Indiana dunes State Park, wait for the traffic to die down and complete my journey to Park Ridge, a suburb just north and west of Chicago, near the world’s busiest airport. Although I was born in Minnesota, I spent most of my childhood in Park Ridge, now made somewhat famous because Hillary Rodham Clinton grew up there. Her brother Hugh was one of my campaign managers when I ran for student council president at Maine South High School. I have not seen him since, and could not recognize the overweight man in the newspaper photograph after he was accused of influence peddling in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. In high school, he was a handsome, muscular football player full of energy and enthusiasm. My brother lives in the area, in Naperville, some twenty miles west of Chicago. My mother still lives in the small, split-level house I grew up in.

The large prairie houses of my home town look like they have been here forever, certainly since long before the city of Chicago grew out to make Park Ridge a suburb. Walking these streets, Chicago does seem far away, even though it is never more than a couple of miles.
In the Chicago newspapers, aside from national news and the usual local murders, fires and disappearances, the big news this summer happens to concern the lakefront, specifically, what to do about Soldier Field, the enormous stadium just south of the three great museums on South Lake Shore Drive. The lakefront is accessible from the city's southernmost boundary on the Indiana border to the northernmost, where the city of Evanston begins. It is a most impressive long ribbon of public space, allowing you to sail into the great metropolis and find it fringed as far as you can see with a sandy beach and a greensward dotted with trees. Only after several hundred yards of open space do the office and apartment towers rise up. I have never sailed in, but have flown in countless times. The flight path often takes you over the lakefront north of the loop, west along the Kennedy Expressway and slowly down into O'Hare Airport. It is a feast for the eyes, even in winter. How good would Chicago's famous architecture look without the park and lake border?

Many things make Chicago a great city - its size, its cultural institutions, universities. My favorite part of Chicago, however, is Lake Michigan. For most people it is just "The Lake." The ocean remains for me a strange and mysterious place. I am still not accustomed to having so much living matter in the water with me, nor am I accustomed to how powerful the waves are. But I am learning: being picked up by a wave and hurled toward the shore on a small piece of molded plastic, like being on the cow-catcher of a locomotive, is a thrill beyond compare. It is also nice to have company in the water in the form of seals and sea otters even though that means that there might be an occasional shark. Swimming in fresh water - however tame in comparison - is its own delight. Since your body is not as buoyant in the fresh water, you are more a part of it. The lake water takes you in, softly envelopes you, then releases you into the warm, humid air, an only slightly less dense form of itself. Afterward, your skin feels light, almost diaphanous.

I spend my last evening in the Chicago area at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, just north of Chicago. At dusk while cicadas sing, a surprising wind springs up, driving sand into my face even though I am close to the water. I take refuge in the beach grass on the low dunes. Despite the wind and proximity to the lake, it is still warm and humid. Thanks to an hour of swimming in the lake, I feel comfortably cool for the first time in days. My skin seems to breathe. There are no bugs in the air. The canopy of trees looms above: great elms, maples and locusts. To the west, shades of blue grow darker as the sun sets behind the horizon, behind the trees, the flat prairie, the pavement, strip malls.

3. Across the Prairies and Plains

I have seen it all before and barely notice my surroundings, so familiar are they, as I drive west on Interstate 88. It is not at all clear why there is another interstate west from Chicago to the Quad Cities in addition to I-80, but I am grateful for this road less traveled. There are few trucks and not many cars all the way to Iowa. I listen to Chicago’s great classical music station, WFMT, for about an hour until the signal fades. WFMT is one of the nation’s last great commercial classical music stations, my constant companion when I was growing up. Eventually I pick up public radio from Davenport, then from Iowa City shortly after crossing the Mississippi; several welcome hours of classical music and NPR news. Then I begin to nod off behind the wheel. Not a rest area or interchange in sight. Dumbly fumbling with the dial, hoping to find something with a beat that will wake me up, I thankfully find the pulsing exuberance of a Rolling Stones classic. I crank the volume up, my heart pumps and my spirits soar. When the song ends, I notice that I am going over 85.

I pull off at the next rest area. The weather news this late July in the Midwest continues to be of unrelenting heat and humidity. Highs are in the 90s, with humidity not far behind. I get out of the car and feel certain within minutes that bugs are crawling on my bare arms.

Stopping outside of Omaha for the night, I walk inside the motel and find the air conditioning positively arctic, yet after a few minutes inside I am not at all cold in shorts and a t-shirt. I go for a swim in an enormous indoor pool, have dinner, return to my room, troll the television channels for something to watch and find CNN’s taped coverage of Katherine Graham’s funeral. It is Monday, July 23rd, 2001. I live just up Wisconsin Avenue from the National Cathedral. It fills my living room window on the 8th floor. At night I can see the illuminated white dome of the Capitol beyond it and to the left. For the past two years in Washington, the Cathedral has been my orienting point. I can occasionally see it from elsewhere in the city. It is where I go outside to read, to attend concerts and to run on the track at St. Alban’s School below. It marks my neighborhood, my playground, my home away from home. Watching a funeral in this building I know so well, of the owner of the newspaper I read (The Washington Post) while I am in Omaha, a place I have never stopped before (I have whizzed past it on the interstate a few times), is disorienting, dizzying. I wonder how I have gotten here, where I am going and why.

Fortunately, I sleep well and am ready to go in the morning. The short answer to last night’s questions is simple: Today I am going to Ft. Collins, north of Denver and Boulder, to spend a rest day in the middle of my journey with a friend enrolled in a summer institute at Colorado State University. At breakfast, I notice that the Omaha newspaper refers to the local inhabitants as “midlanders,” a term I have not encountered before. The sports page, in addition to major league baseball, features the minor leagues, a local golf tournament called “The Sioux Classic,” and anticipation of Nebraska football.

Once underway, I easily find Nebraska Public Radio towards the low end of the FM band, KUCV Lincoln, 90.9, where public radio stations tend to be. As I drive by dozens of immense long watering devices, like so many mechanical praying mantises, I hear Victor Herbert’s “Nakomis Suite” for the first time. My Dad occasionally recited parts of Longfellow’s Hiawatha from memory, so I presume that this is “daughter of the moon, Nakomis.” One section contains the sort of tom-tom rhythm we have come to expect from “Indian” music. Next comes “New England Triptych,” by William Schumann, which succeeds just as well. I was hoping to find a radio station that revealed the character of its region. While none of this music was composed in or about Nebraska, its rhyme with the landscape delights me and I gratefully stay tuned to Nebraska Public Radio all the way across the state and well into Colorado, picking up KHNE at 89.1 from Hastings and KLNE at 88.7 from Lexington. I am all the more delighted for I have never heard this music before. Somehow it seems evocative of America and I wonder how this can be. Is it just because the titles of the pieces have given me a hint? How or why is the famous largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony so evocative of the American landscape?

I drive almost the entire distance from Omaha to the Nebraska panhandle pondering these questions and enjoying the music without noticing anything that tells me unmistakably that I am not in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, or even Pennsylvania. Only at a rest stop near Maxwell do I finally glimpse the first geographical feature that I could not possibly have seen further east: a distant ridge, a brown, rocky ribbon on the horizon, the first suggestion of mountains and an arid climate. Yet humidity at the rest stop is still intense, the grass soft and green. Only after the turnoff towards Denver (I-76 plays a cameo role here, taking you from I-80 to I-25 and Denver, then bowing out of existence) does the mixture of fields and trees disappear; there is nothing but sagebrush as far as the eye can see, and it can see pretty far over the rolling hills. I am on the open range. I am in the West. What composer’s music would rhyme with what I see – Aaron Copland? Ferde Grofe?

After a few more hours, mountains suddenly appear straight ahead, shimmering like a mirage. If I were in a movie, I would bring up the angelic choir to accompany the appearance of these distant peaks, the first spectacular landscape I have seen in almost 2,000 miles of driving. What a thrill it must have been for people walking slowly beside ox-drawn wagons to glimpse this harbinger of something like the pearly gates.

The mountains fade from sight and reappear periodically for several more hours, as do storm clouds and rain, until about 7:30 I finally roll into Ft. Collins. Low mountains fill the horizon. Rays from the lowering sun light upon the green hills. No sign of a storm save for towering cumulus far to the south.

4. Over the Rockies: Fort Collins to Salt Lake

The Denver newspaper the next morning, in addition to national news, features stories about a Wyoming wildfire, a rich fossil bed being destroyed to make a golf course, a new reservoir south of Denver, a legislative battle shaping up for a wilderness area west of Denver, around James Peak. Land and water; the story of the west. My friend in Ft. Collins tells me there are far too many people in the area for present water resources, yet it remains one of the fastest growing in the country. We spend an afternoon hiking in the hills just west of town. Westward the mountains rise. Eastward the plains and prairies stretch out to the horizon and a thousand miles beyond. The transition from plains to mountains is unmistakably clear.

I head west again about 10 o’clock on a sunny morning, taking a two-lane highway from Ft. Collins north and west up to I-80 at Laramie, Wyoming. The sunshine soon passes, but the overcast sky in no way diminishes the feast for my eyes. The sight of distant mountains of amazing colors makes me pull off the road so many times that I have to promise myself not to do it again or I will never reach Salt Lake City.

Words fail me for the colors and shades of these distant mountains. I am not sure I have ever seen them before. Are they purple, pink, ochre, mauve, magenta, russet, crimson? Even the grass and topsoil in the foreground play color tunes I have never seen: grayish blue, grayish green, and something sort of red. The name of the old warm-up band for the Grateful Dead suddenly pops into mind: New Riders of the Purple Sage. I never got far into a Zane Grey novel, but he sure picked a good title. The color show continues all day, even after I rejoin the interstate. Even there I cannot resist stopping a few more times. I take many photographs in an attempt to capture on film the interplay between sky and mountains, but when I develop them later they do not begin to convey the color and depth of what I see.

I listen to KUNC, Northern Colorado Public Radio as I cross over the Continental Divide twice – I can’t explain how – once at 7000 and again at 6930 feet. It is cloudy much of the day and I leave off the air-conditioner. As I approach Salt Lake City in the late afternoon, the interstate winds down between towering hills amid signs warning truckers to test their brakes. The sky glows yellow and orange, then deep red under layers of even deeper purple. The descent takes a long time. Finally I emerge on the plain of the city to behold black, ragged-edged mountains across the great lake backlit by a blood-red sky.

5. Through the Desert: from the Salt Lake to the Sierra

I read the Salt Lake City newspaper quickly over breakfast, knowing that the longest and hardest day is ahead of me. The front page features stories about the Navajo World War II Code Talkers receiving their medals in Washington, a local psychiatrist plea-bargaining for writing fraudulent prescriptions, sky boxes for basketball games, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the vandalizing of dinosaur tracks by a local boy scout. Inside, the paper focuses on preparations for the impending winter Olympics, proposals for a nuclear waste site, and a legal battle between a man and the state of Utah over his pet wildcat. I enjoy this sober-minded newspaper and what little I see of Salt Lake City. But I need to drive over 500 miles today and quickly depart, hoping to return someday.

The journey across western Utah and Nevada borders on the hallucinatory. The great dead lake spreads out on both sides of the interstate to jagged gray mountains on the horizon; no sign of life on either. The lake has receded since I last made this journey, in the fall of 94, when I remember the lake lapping at the edge of the roadway, or at least I think I remember. Perhaps no one else can remember either, for the boundary of the lake appears to be in some dispute among mapmakers. No map shows any water south of the Interstate, but there it is, a good deal of it, mile after mile. Some maps show the lake having spilled an immense distance westward through a gap in the mountains into the “Newfoundland Evaporation Basin.” I can see no trace of water in this place, if I am looking in the right place, if one can call this inhospitable expanse of rock a place, as I hurtle along at 75 miles an hour, if not 80, well past where the lake has given out, as far as I can see, as I traverse the 77 exit-less and service-less miles between Rowley Junction and Wendover, the last town in Utah.

Then I see a salt mine – it must be a salt mine, what else could it be? -- a gray factory structure next to six small mountains of white powder. It is not just an expression? There really are salt mines? I guess the stuff has to come from somewhere. What else could it be? I search through my limited knowledge of geology for answers. Zinc? Gypsum powder? Diamond tailings? Uranium dust? Magnesium crystals? I run out of possibilities as the factory recedes to a speck in the rear-view mirror. Whatever.

Aside from the Nevada Badlands Salt Mining and Manufacturing facility, the only structure of note is the railroad track, which becomes my constant companion for the day, running alongside the highway, crossing under it, coming in and going away at odd angles, running for all I can tell, from nowhere to nowhere. Yesterday's subtle colors are nowhere to be found. The sunlight is a harsh, pale yellow under a whitish-blue sky. Pass one row of gray, craggy mountains and another row slides monotonously into view. What sort of music could accompany this landscape, I wonder. Something for electronically enhanced xylophone and synthesizer, perhaps.

The dry air is not exactly cool, but at least not uncomfortably warm and I leave the air-conditioner off until after noon in order to lessen the stress upon my aging automobile. I stop for gas at the town of Wells, which is written in slightly larger print on the map, indicating a town with some amenities, perhaps? I find only two fast food places, something that may be a bar or casino, or both, and a road wandering off north towards God only knows where or why. I tank up quickly, set the cruise control at close to 80, and eat lunch while I drive in order get out of the state as fast as possible

I periodically troll the airwaves for signs of life. Several times the scanner moves across the dial and starts over again, picking up absolutely nothing. For the better part of 250 miles, I find only an occasional country music station or evangelist threatening me with eternal damnation, which I decide must be something like living in Nevada. Finally, in mid-afternoon and well towards the California border, I find a public radio station from Reno. The program is “High Desert Forum,” which features interviews with Nevada authors. The station fades in and out, but I learn something from a Nevada historian about Sarah Winnemucca, after whom the town along the interstate is named, a woman from one of the Indian tribes who learned English and wrote about the region. So there is some history and public-spiritedness in this weird place after all.

After about an hour the signal fades, I hit the scan button and am surprised to pick up “All Things Considered,” on Sacramento Public Radio. How does this signal make it over the mountains? Am I hearing it because of a lucky bounce off the ozone? Hearing this familiar voice is like glimpsing distant mountains. I know that I am within range of my destination. I stop for gas in Reno, buy some groceries – bread, cheese, cherry tomatoes, juice, some fruit and some chocolate -- and I am on my way. In less than an hour, I know that I am entering California as the road divides into lanes that funnel the traffic to stop at what look like toll booths or the sort of border crossing facilities one routinely finds in Europe. California really is a place unto itself, for nowhere else in America does one ever encounter anything like this. One encounters this because the most fertile agricultural environment on earth is vulnerable to invasion from just about every other life form, animal or vegetable, on the planet, and the state of California has to inspect your car and its contents for bugs.

Now I am in the mountains, the Sierra Nevada. The transition from the Nevada flatlands to the mountains has not been dramatic, but now I am unquestionably into the mountains. I turn off the interstate and the air-conditioner, roll down the window, take a deep breath, and know that I am no longer in Nevada, or Nebraska, or Ohio, or Washington. The air is cool, dry, yet redolent of a thousand aromas; light, yet complex as a good white wine. I breathe again more deeply and smell pine, fir, cedar, grass, bay, spruce, sage. In another hour, I have checked in at an old hotel and hot springs, well off the beaten path. After two more hours, I have had something to eat and am soaking in an outdoor pool, gazing up at the stars. The only sound is the occasional sighing of the wind through the fir trees. Did the early travelers know that such delights awaited them in California, a land even more verdant, salubrious and productive than the one of which Moses spoke?

6. The Golden Hills of California

After a few nights at the hot springs, I return to Interstate 80 and drive five uneventful hours to Berkeley. It is a road I know well. One minute I am still in the mountains; the next I behold a wall of haze: the Central Valley. Descend a few miles and I am in Auburn and the uninterrupted march of housing tracts and shopping centers begins. Somewhere in the middle of it is Sacramento. Cross the Carcinas Bridge, go up a long hill, slowly descend on what is now a multi-laned freeway and I am now, unmistakably, in the Bay Area: there it is, San Francisco Bay, on the right; beyond it are the hills of Marin County, land’s end. I have found my NPR station towards the bottom of the FM dial, KQEI 88.3 Sacramento, then a few notches up, KQED 88.5 San Francisco, when I descend into the Bay Area.

Trail’s End for this report is Peet’s Coffee at the corner of Walnut and Vine, in Berkeley, California. This was my favorite urban place in the Bay Area when I lived here for the better part of the 90s. The neighborhood is sometimes called the Gourmet Ghetto. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the restaurant devoted to fresh, locally grown food is around the corner on Shattuck Avenue, one of Berkeley’s main thoroughfares. President Clinton, weaning himself from cheeseburgers, dined there early in his presidency. For security reasons he arrived on short notice and commandeered the smaller cafĂ© section upstairs. After dinner the President and his party exited downstairs through the main dining room to squeals of recognition and a standing ovation. The Bread and Cheese Board is across the street, a collective that bakes wonderful bread and sells cheese from local cheese makers and around the world.

Peet’s was the epicenter of the gourmet coffee revolution, starting some time in the late 60s. Mr. Peet himself is still alive and tasting coffee, the man who taught the founders of Starbucks everything they know about quality coffee. Nothing tells me that I am back in Berkeley more clearly than sitting here for an hour or so, savoring the extravagantly strong coffee, watching people, listening to the classical music when it is audible above the hubbub, writing. I sit on the shop’s only seating possibility, a small bench rather like an old-fashioned church pew, which seats two adults, perhaps three if none of them has eaten too many of the offerings from the Bread and Cheese Board. The walls are cream-colored with a lot of dark wood trim, echoing the style of many of the Bay Area’s first architects who favored a lot of wood in their buildings. It not only looks good, but is appropriate for use in an earthquake zone. You get a smaller, stronger cup of coffee here than at Starbuck’s, coffee that is superior in every way. The beans glisten with oil in their bins and smell fresher than anywhere else, except perhaps for Misha’s in Alexandria, Virginia, Flying Goat up in Sonoma County, or other fine local roaster.

I continue my quest for a sense of place in the local newspapers. I begin with the Los Angeles Times, imported from the southern part of the state, “the voice of the west,” which looks sort of the like the New York Times, but is owned by the Chicago Tribune. The story that piques my interest is on the sports page. It concerns the travails of the new football coach at the University of Southern California. He spent his few years as coach of the New York Jets being roasted by the New York sports mavens for his unconventional, attitude-oriented coaching methods. I guess the type of football coach New Yorkers like is a large, explosive personality like Bill Parcells, who, admittedly, was successful; but Bill Walsh was successful, too.

The California dream continues. People dream of a land of even greater opportunity, a place to take some risks away from the set ways and severe winters of the northeast and Midwest, a place to spread your wings, to try something different. From its beginning in the gold rush, it was a place to get rich. It quickly became a place to go for vacation, to visit geographical wonders, to spend time at the ocean, to watch a parade and football game on a sunny New Year’s Day. In the fifties and sixties it finally became a place of cultural and political force, not to mention a major engine of the economy. It continues to beckon Americans, Mexicans, South Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans, everyone.

And here I am again.