Road trips are not a part of our ordinary way of getting around, but we are on one. Along with my sister and brother-in-law, who flew in from Honolulu just for the privilege of this adventure, we drove from Walla Walla, WA to Minneapolis, MN for the triple purpose of going to my first ever high school reunion, visiting our youngest sister and family at their “lake cabin up north,” and seeing a couple of national parks along the way.
It’s easy to forget just how big our nation is when one never travels, or flies, as we usually do, from point A to point B. Glacier and Teddy Roosevelt National Parks were our two must see stops along the way. Glacier is overpoweringly awesome in it’s grandeur, but it was also crowded enough that all the short day hiking trails were overwhelmed with people and not a parking place was to be had. Although, to be fair, the east side just outside the park was all but deserted. By the time we got there it was also time to move on. Teddy Roosevelt, in far western North Dakota, was another story. This enormous combination of badlands, canyons and ranch land along the Little Missouri River was wide open and begging for exploration.
Having said that, it’s the land in between that inspires wonder. A thousand miles of open prairie, small towns and huge farms and ranches interspersed with open pit coal mines, oil and gas development, and the railroad. The wealth it creates benefits the locals at the most modest of levels, the bulk of it flowing to the coasts and to the relative few at the top of the economic food chain. A little over a hundred years ago, as immigration flowed into the Great Plains, local progressives formed the Grange and other organizations to fight for a fair share of the profits from their labor. Now the region is losing population, and what political energy there is has been largely seduced by the paranoia of the far right wing so that its followers have become the agents of policies that enrich others at the cost of their own impoverishment. Go figure.
But I digress, I’m inclined to think it would do everyone good to take a road trip or two across the land. I don’t imagine it would matter what route, as long as it took in the great expanse of the plains and prairie. It’s too easy to become so locally parochial that we lose perspective on what it means to be a nation of united states. It’s not just a matter of isolated big city folks wondering if ‘O’ states such as Oklahoma, Ohio and Oregon are lumped together somewhere “out there.” A local guy of my acquaintance once told me that he was planning a trip “back east.” I asked him where and he said Nebraska, which to him was more or less somewhere near New Jersey.
Geography is important. Knowledge and experience of it is how we put perspective into our ideas about who we are and who we want to be. Sadly, I know more than a few who travel a great deal by car all over the country and never learn a thing about the history, culture or economics of the places through which they drive. I marvel at their lack of curiosity about almost everything but where to get the best deal on an all you can eat buffet, or who are obsessed with knowing the numbers of highways but are disinterested in the knowing about the people who live along them. Maybe it’s always been that way. Sad.