Hitting the road in search of a country

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

To help fill the vacation travel vacuum created by the virus, which has forced most of us to stay close to home this summer, I'm offering a second travelogue, this one from 2005 (with some revision): 

Responding to an acute sense of loss, I designed this year's vacation trip as a search for America's fading ideals.

My son and I drove 2,500 miles in nine days — a giant triangle, southeast by northeast by due west — an all-American road trip, national treasure hunt, hoping to find enough to replenish my waning national pride.

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

So I was looking for any evidence of the American ideals I cherish — democracy, justice, equality, respect for civil liberties, opportunity — any echo, anything to hang onto.

We made straight for the Great Smoky Mountains because you can still find a residue of innocence in our national parks. To get there, we had to run the gauntlet of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tacky, depressing reminder of our cultural mediocrity. The mountains, however, were a tonic and on the other side, we drove through the Cherokee reservation, testament to the endurance of our native peoples despite their dependency — and ours — 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 find our focus again.

We headed up I-81, marveling at the beauty of Ladybird Johnson's wonderful interstate wildflower program, which is particularly vibrant in Virginia. We visited old college friends who have built a good life in the beautiful Shenandoah River valley, immortalized in one of my favorite traditional American folk ballads, "Shenandoah," about the deep nostalgia felt by a native Virginian as he crosses "the wide Missouri" to join the great westward expansion, likely never to return.

We visited the McLean House in Appomattox Courthouse (the town's formal name) and stood in the room where the Civil War officially ended (though "The War Between the States" as they call it in the South, continues on in many hearts and minds). At the time, the armistice re-cemented the Union (glued it anyway) forging for the first time in our history something resembling a national consciousness — though not a national consensus. We have always been a divided country, it seems, even after Sept. 11.

Continuing north to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, we arrived too late in the day for a tour, but decided to take the drive that circles this historic site. We pulled over at one point, walked a short distance, and found ourselves on Little Round Top, famous for a critical engagement in the three-day battle in 1863 that marked a turning point in the Civil War. Little Round Top affords a commanding view of the entire battlefield, an eerie but beautiful sight to behold alone at dusk. Dylan and I had watched the 1993 film, Gettysburg, so we were familiar with this overlook's role in tipping the battle in favor of the Union forces. We could not have asked for a better way to be introduced to a site that has been sanctified in our collective consciousness — 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. 

If only we could all accept the outcome and come together to create that more perfect union where every human being is created — and treated — equal.

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

And so did we — north to Cooperstown, New York, for the Hall of Fame and a celebration of baseball, one of the few unifying influences stitching together our fragmented national consciousness, not to mention father-son relationships. As James Earl Jones testifies in Field of Dreams, a favorite among the films my son and I have watched together, "Baseball has been the constant." That it has. Civil War soldiers on both sides played it in their camps between battles. Just as the war nationalized the American people, it also nationalized baseball.

"People will come," Jones said of that field in northeast Iowa, "for it's money they have, but peace they lack." He was right. Dylan and I, several years earlier, visited the site where the movie was filmed, and we played there in dreamy contentment. People did come.

On the drive home, we also stopped at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which all Bears fans should visit since George Halas' Midway Monsters were to football what the Damn Yankees were to baseball.

Our Great American Trip drove home the fact that the so-called "United" States still lacks a strong sense of national identity. But on the road we learned that, if you go looking, the country is still out there. 

Waiting to be rediscovered — and reclaimed.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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