Hitting the road in search of a country


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This May, responding to an acute sense of loss, I designed my vacation trip as a search for America.

My son and I drove 2,500 miles in nine days?#34;a giant triangle, southeast by northeast by due west?#34;an all-American road trip, but beneath that, a treasure hunt, hoping to find enough to replenish my waning sense of national pride.

I am not proud of what this country has become in the last 25 years. Our wealth and power have corrupted us. We have become an overfed, mentally lazy group of passive consumers, too willing to be led by unscrupulous people who don't have our best interests at heart. We have the most powerful military, but it hasn't made us feel any safer. We have amassed great wealth (well, a few have), but it hasn't made us any happier.

So I was looking for any reminder of the American ideals I love?#34;democracy, fairness, equality, civil liberty, opportunity, meritocracy?#34;any echo, anything to hang onto.

We made straight for the Great Smokey Mountains because you can still find a residue of innocence in our national parks. To get there, we had to run the tacky gauntlet of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tenn. a depressing reminder of our current cultural mediocrity. The mountains, however, were tonic and on the other side, we drove through the Cherokee reservation, testament to the endurance of our native people despite their dependency?#34;and ours?#34;on gambling.

We drove a segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway, itself a National Park, as lovely a road as this country boasts, built by the WPA during the Depression, testament to the enormous people power we could harness if we ever found a focus.

We headed up I-81, marveling at the beauty of Ladybird Johnson's wonderful interstate wildflower program, which has no equal outside of Virginia. We visited old college friends who have built a good life in the beautiful Shenandoah River valley, which was immortalized in one of my favorite traditional American folk ballads about the deep nostalgia felt by a native Virginian as he crosses "the wide Missouri" to join the great westward expansion.

We visited the McLean house in Appomattox and stood in the room where the Civil War, in effect, came to an end, forging for the first time in our history a national consciousness.

We have always been a divided country, it seems, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when traumatized Americans so devoutly expressed the hope that calamity would at least bring the country together.

Continuing north to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, we stood on Little Round Top at dusk, surveying the entire battlefield, sanctified not by some romantic notion of war, but by the sheer number of casualties (51,000), sacrificed on these fields for causes each side deeply believed in.

It was also the site of the most eloquent words ever spoken about our nation, Lincoln noting the war was "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." That testing continues.

And so did we?#34;north to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame and a celebration of baseball, one of the few unifying elements stitching together our fragmented national consciousness. As James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams, "Baseball has been the one constant." That it has. Civil War soldiers on both sides played it in their camps between engagements. As the war nationalized the American people, it also nationalized baseball.

"People will come," Jones said, "for it's money they have, but peace they lack."

We also lack a strong sense of national purpose?#34;temporarily, I hope. But on the road, I discovered that if you go looking, the country is still out there, just waiting to be reclaimed.

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