This summer, in an attempt to restore some sense of normality to our lives, our family embarked on two separate road trips and racked up over 4,000 miles in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and then California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. We departed on both trips from Los Angeles, the most populous county and the second-largest city in the United States. Before the pandemic, many inhabitants of large cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. or Chicago (including me!) couldn’t imagine living somewhere smaller—somewhere less diverse, less cultural, less sophisticated.
But, over the past year and a half, our nation has been torn asunder by an election with a very unexpected result, a rise in medical authoritarianism, and the revelation that critical race theory apparently underpins our educational establishment. It has been shocking to some, but not all of us, that the free press—the existence of which is protected by the First Amendment—has put its collective thumb on the scales in all three cases. What has also been shocking to me—once lockdowns removed all the benefits of city living—is how truly dreadful, provincial, and punitive the people who live in our big, influential cities have been revealed to be.
I emigrated to the United States of America as a child from a country wracked by its dance with socialism and resultant dangerous mobs. I love America, but it wasn’t until this summer’s road trips that I truly came to appreciate how much of what I love comes from small towns. America only functions as a high-trust society—not just when it comes to trusting government, institutions, or the media—but perhaps most importantly when it comes to trusting each other.
People who live in large, dense cities necessarily develop a hard exterior as part of a survival strategy. Don’t make eye contact with the addict who is shooting up in the doorway. Don’t leave your car or house unlocked. Don’t, for goodness’ sake, smile and say “hi” as you enter the public transportation our betters think we should be taking from our packed-and-stacked rental apartments to our high-rise corporate cubicles, which we are now only permitted to go to if vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
City dwellers like me have a hard time fathoming that people are largely trustworthy and kind. We can’t think like that. If we do, and are robbed or hurt, our big-city district attorney won’t prosecute the perpetrators, and so the vicious cycle continues and people grow even thicker shells. Guilt from having that kind of hard protective shell then induces city dwellers to urgently try to make up for it by helping “the workers” or “the poor” or “BIPOC” or to castigate “the unvaccinated” because they don’t know anyone outside their self-selected category, whether it’s that of work-from-home-UberEats-Amazon-Zoom-cocktail-party-circuit, white-suburban-yoga-then-wine-mom-book-club, off-off-off-Broadway-actors/artists/models or credentialed-journos-married-to-White-House-advisors or Daddy’s-favorite-think-tank types.
People segregate by occupation, blue versus red, and by any handy means necessary in order to make human connections. The downside is that you don’t know anyone outside your group.
How to crack those shells and regain your humanity?
While there is summer left, take your kids or your dog and rent a car (if you can) and hit the open road to Savannah or Crested Butte or Santa Fe or Panguitch and see what makes America, America. Your kids need to learn that locking doors is optional. Your kids need to feel the fresh air on their exposed, healthy faces. Your kids need to see that people are individuals who are good and bad, sometimes both on the same day. Your kids need to see smiles and tipped hats and drivers who give you the “nod and wave” to merge ahead of them. You need that, too. It’s not just kids harmed by segregating and masking. It’s all of us.
When I was driving my teen daughters through New Mexico, we had to pull over to get a photo of the “Las Vegas, New Mexico” sign to prank the rest of the family. We were on the shoulder (hazard lights on) when a man in a truck slowed to look at us as he passed in the opposite direction, then turned back to ask if we were OK. When a police officer pulled me over after we’d escaped an Arizona monsoon, he saw how nervous we were and explained exactly what to do when next caught in one. When my rear tire started shuddering madly until we found a tire center near Springer (pop. 1,200), the burly gold-toothed man reassured me it was just due to the condition of the road. The next time someone yammers on about toxic masculinity or police brutality to my daughters, they’ll have those counter examples in their memory banks.
You can see the same hard exterior developing now in schools. Education factories are huge and favored by bureaucrats and public sector unions for their efficiency of scale (for the administrators and teachers, not for the students). In response, teens organize themselves into blocks. Sure, that happens in every high school, but Johnny-the-Jock will also be in classes and even be friends with Becca-The-Bookworm when enrollment is under many thousands in a graduating class. Small schools allow the kids and the teachers to get to know each other.
The movement of tony private schools to reorganize with race as the central organizing principle means they don’t trust us to know each other. A lot of that pressure, by the way, is coming from national accreditation bodies responding to immensely wealthy African American parents partnering with immensely wealthy Caucasian parents—all of whom are unironically political progressives while championing regressive segregation.
Seeing the kindness and cleanliness of Rosemary Beach, Florida was so odd to my kids that one of them wrote a horror story based on all the beautiful facades and Lily Pulitzer-wearing family groups! Everyone needs to experience a small town in America at least once in their lives. Getting to live in Davidson, North Carolina for college was a real gift, because my alma mater’s vaunted Honor Code bleeds into the community—or is it the other way around? Walking home safely after dark. Leaving your wallet on a table and returning to get it. Getting to know octogenarian Mary of the M&M Soda Shop while I was an 18-year-old student. All those things help me to see people as good.
The Tower of Babel may be just a Bible story to urban enclave dwellers but it’s instructive. Putting people into silos is bad for all of us. I will always have hope for the United States of America as long as I can pile the family (and enough candy to shock an elephant) into a car and go. One silver lining from COVID’s travel restrictions is the number of people flocking to the open road to see Florida, Texas, South Dakota and beyond to experience how else life can be lived. Because no one is vacationing in New York or San Francisco now, are they?
Recharge in places where trust is high. Our cars don’t just equal freedom. They help bridge understanding. People who want to stop that . . . well, I’ll leave it up to you what their intentions are.