I’ve driven across twelve of our fifty states during the past two weeks, covering between three and four thousand miles. Frankly, I lost track of the mileage number where my odometer started, but I do know that hard-driving miles were logged in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Mississippi — unique and interesting places, every last one.
Wheeling along in my Dodge Charger — a vehicle made for such an excursion, by the way — I’ve had countless hours to ponder the mysteries of the universe. I offer a few observations.
It’s a free country. That’s not just some tag-on phrase to use to emphasize a preceding statement. A man, if he is of a mind to and has the gas money, can go from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, California, and stop along the way to look at every concrete dinosaur and every college football stadium he might ever want to see. That’s freedom.
Kansas is a sea of grass, a vast ocean. One afternoon near Salina, I wondered if my outlook on life would be the same if I’d grown up out here at this portal to Oz, looking at 360-degrees of endless, grassy horizon day after day instead of the dark, engulfing woods of North Mississippi. Would I be more fearful and cautious if I were raised where the distance to the nearest help from any accident was so great? Or would I be more conscientious and prepared having always been able to see approaching storms or animals for miles before they reached me, with time to strategize? It’s hard to say.
People can adapt to almost any environment. Without doubt, that can be said.
North of about Dyersburg, Tennessee, people stop being like me/us. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal perspective.
I think people in South Georgia are closest in kind to those in Northeast Mississippi. They’re hospitable and friendly in ways we recognize as hospitable and friendly. The late southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, a favorite of mine, was from there — born in Fort Benning, moved to Atlanta. That figures. I see life a lot like he wrote it.
When I was in Texas, I remembered — from mountains of past genealogical research — that many Mississippians and other southerners flooded to the Lonestar State following the Civil War, escaping reconstruction. In fact, a host of famous western gunmen came straight out of the South. Natural selection left Mississippi with the stubborn crowd, I’d say, while the more adventurous (or the more proud or the more wanted or the more violent) “got the heck out of Dodge.” Well, actually they got into Dodge, the real one in Kansas. And they made that little cattle town a rough and tumble place for a spell, along with Abilene and Amarillo and Tombstone.
There’s still a tough, hard brand of human being, of common ancestry, scattered across those western states. But while we may share the same great-great granddaddy, the western folk seem a bit more edgy to me. I guess that’s a feeling that could fall into the category of “paranoia derived from unfamiliar surroundings,” but I’m not entirely certain of that. I am certain that I felt a little skittish at more than a couple of gas stations along the way over the last couple weeks.
I thought about a favorite movie of mine — Lonesome Dove — as I traversed between Ogallah, Kansas, and Limon, Colorado. I considered what true pioneers the people that inspired Larry McMurtry’s characters must have been. On my trip — by air-conditioned car on paved interstate highways — I worried a bit when my gas gauge got down to around 75 miles to “E.” The stretches between signs of civilization were very long across those open plains. Yet amazingly, amazing Americans did drive cattle across there, two thousand miles on foot and horseback, from Texas to Montana. And they did it without a cell phone or internet access. Not some fictional character, but real life men — men of vision. I’m envious of those pioneers … and I sincerely admire them at the same time.
The last part of my two-week expedition involved me and my youngest son Maddux helping my second-oldest Gabe return home from Fort Carson, Colorado. Gabe served four years in the U.S. Army and received his honorable discharge. I’m very proud of him, proud that he served his country.
Long drives offer time to think, time to consider where we are and what we are, as individuals and as a nation.
A final observation: America’s a fine country, full of awe and wonder.
Go out and see it sometime.