When I recently accepted an invitation to a conference in California I knew there were two certain things about it: my husband and our son would come with me, and we would not be flying. We would drive.
The thought of driving across America appeals to me, especially as a naturalized American citizen. In my case, the journey would be 6,000 miles, so not something to be undertaken lightly. That said, neither my husband nor I like to fly. We prefer the freedom of the automobile. After all, what better way to see America than to drive through it? (Not to mention, today’s airline chaos makes flying increasingly unattractive).
As I write, we have been on the road for four days, have covered 1,800 miles, and there are many more to go. It’s almost impossible to have the complete objectivity required to reflect on the journey at this point. Moreover, as I am writing this in the car; my husband is focused on the road; and my 5-year-old son is sitting in the back, singing “Stars and Stripes,” very loudly. Yet reflection on such experiences is inevitable, even as they are happening in real-time.
Leaving our home near Buffalo, New York, I couldn’t help being excited. After we left our first stop in Louisville, however, I began to feel anxious. Once we reached Texas, I was in disbelief. Have we really traveled this far? Are we really this far away from home? Seeing the yellow sand was disorienting.
But it wasn’t really the colors. I’ve seen yellow sand and burnt grass before. It was the expansiveness of Texas that overwhelmed me. Everything’s bigger in Texas, to use the cliché, including America’s inherent and unique characteristic—its sheer size.
Being on the open road is beautiful and exciting, and yes, freeing. But it also brings with it a great deal of uncertainty. I have felt that rush of uncertainty in my life before —when I left my hometown of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. I felt it when I lived in the refugee camp and when I immigrated to America. Yet embracing this uncertainty and this choice of independence is one of the ways that we are most human. Which is another way of saying more American.
There was another thing that was palpable as we reached the seemingly endless expanse of Texas: a sudden feeling of one’s own relative smallness and an accompanying sense of humility. At first, I felt exposed and unprotected, the complete opposite of the sensation of claustrophobia. Indeed, the relentless nothingness of the land provokes different anxieties.
Despite these swirling emotions, the Texas landscape does not give birth to alienation, especially of the Kafkaesque, existential kind. There is still warmth in every sense of the word but the land is also indifferent. Are we part of it? How do we relate to it? We keep going, just like those oil wells that keep going up and down. That seems, somehow, very American. To just keep going.
America is beautiful, but she is also harsh. The possibilities are endless, and perhaps it’s only we in our weakness who turn the possible into an impossible. Yes, the raw landscape can be unforgiving but another element is inescapable: awe. This, of course, goes together with our capacity to be humble before the vision of the land. We want to tame it, control it, but this is all too human. We can, but at the same time, we really can’t. America seems to bring out all the complexity of emotion, and the answer is never easy. Struggle is inevitable but, in facing it, so is independence. Man is free when he accepts the responsibility that comes with freedom.
In her great novel, O Pioneers!, Willa Cather writes,
The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth became so bitter; because he felt that the men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.
Recognition of the expansive and often frightening element of nature is essential for humility as we stand before this American greatness. Our journey continues.