Crossing America: Our nation is shaken, but not into pieces
Seattle Times staff reporter
BACK HOME IN SEATTLE — If a trek across the United States reinforces a single idea, it is that size does indeed matter.
"Big country, ain't it?" a friend in Los Angeles said in an e-mail. We were in Kansas at the time, parked near the nation's geographic center, with views in all directions of endless land. The trite observation was made poignant when seen through that prism.
Pacific to Atlantic, we cut through 15 states and four mountain ranges in just under three weeks. We passed from summer to fall somewhere in Kentucky. Many of you came along in spirit. You stood staring with us at what the writer Jonathan Franzen calls the "terrible beauty" of the fallen towers at Ground Zero.
Our last dispatch ran the day America began dropping bombs on Afghanistan and leaders reissued warnings of more attacks on U.S. soil. Anthrax has since become the latest scare, and talking heads everywhere paint a picture of a jittery America.
We don't believe it. Not yet, anyway. We heard the same on our long drive — maybe we took the wrong route — yet we met hardly a soul who would be characterized as scared. Certainly, a fraction of our 270 million neighbors may be trembling in their shorts; some do so habitually.
But in the streets and byways and fields of our journey, America didn't strike us as gripped with anxiety. Most people, nearly everyone we encountered, while paying more attention to the news — paying more attention, period — appeared to go on with their lives but for a brief pause, like slowing to look at a terrible wreck on the freeway and feeling a flash of grief or caution.
A new awareness
No doubt, the American psyche has come into a new awareness — new to us, old to much of the rest of the world. A young Romanian immigrant in Times Square summed up that awareness:
"Every day," said Simona Ungureanu, a hotel clerk, "anything is possible now."
Ungureanu didn't miss a day of work and didn't act particularly fearful even as she acknowledged the plausibility of more and worse to come.
We met an NYPD officer, Theresa Farello, who at the foot of one of the collapsing towers saw a woman decapitated by falling glass. Farello sped eight blocks in a blind run before escaping the debris cloud into sunlight. It was the longest eight blocks, an eternity. She returned to Ground Zero, to her job, the next day.
Nationwide, there's been a shift in psyche but not much of one in routine. Americans will have to get used to longer waits at airports; some of us might avoid skyscrapers or move to the rural countryside. But most of life for most of us remains largely unchanged.
This is partly a function of America's immensity: In a fight, size does matter, and this nation has the mass — physically, financially, geopolitically — to withstand even a piercing wound and still function pretty much as usual, talking heads notwithstanding.
To people like 22-year-old Wendy Atwood of Lebanon, Kan., surrounded by endless plain with nothing in sight taller than a cottonwood, the talking heads of television are exactly that: detached entities with good hair and nonstop mouth action whose words bear only theoretical relation to reality.
We don't have to tell you these are cursory observations, made by note-takers who zipped across a vast land in 20 days. Our observations can't help but be cursory. We have no real credential other than possessing eyes and ears. But some of you asked for closing thoughts, so let us offer up a couple more.
For as big as it is, America is incredibly, even miraculously, uniform. We're not talking exclusively about commercial homogenization, but that's included: These united states are a Wal-Mart nation coast to coast.
We're talking about something more fundamental.
It's an astonishing thing to travel 3,000 miles, from one edge of a continent to the other, and come to a place where people speak the exact same language and engage in the same debates, and do so while wearing the same Eddie Bauer khakis. We who crossed plain and mountain might as well have just crossed the street.
Traveling in China a few years ago, from north to south, we needed three different translators for three different provinces. Going east to west in Indonesia, you could easily encounter dozens of distinct language groups.
There are places in Southeast Asia and Africa where every village has its own dialect and distinct customs. In Brazil, there are indigenous tribes not far from Rio de Janeiro whose languages have not been fully translated. And there's Europe with its crowded hodgepodge.
Of course America didn't gain such uniformity by heavenly blessing; it did so the old-fashioned human way, through subjugation and war and sheer force of will. Not to mention that America was so good at what it did, namely provide freedom and opportunity, that people all over the world were willing to give up everything to come here and melt into the pot.
Dissent quiet, furtive
Still, dissent lingers on our common tongue. We met a Native American, Just Joe, walking his dog at the battlefield of the Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana, who said simply that "America ain't always right."
Interestingly, the dispatch from Little Big Horn, the shortest story in our road series, elicited the most response. Some of you were furious that we introduced dissenting voices even as bodies were being dug up at Ground Zero.
Most striking, though, was the number of letter-writers and callers who not only agreed with Just Joe, but who took his cryptic caution even further by placing some of the blame for the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. government.
Said one Seattle man: "This county has alienated and angered a lot of people around the world because of its policies and arrogance. These people may be sympathetic to the tragedy in New York, but they weigh it against the misery in their own lives — a misery they attribute to this country."
Another man wrote simply that America was "reaping what it has sown."
These came almost as furtive messages, slipped under the door, compared to the exuberance of patriotism witnessed from Wallingford to Greenwich Village. We've seen it for ourselves. A renewed pride in America has descended upon the land, and much of it is informed and deep.
Our guess, though, is there are many people out there with a more complex view than mere dissent and mere patriotism.
Many grope to find ways to express genuine grief for the dead and anger at the attackers and a desire to change American ways abroad. Can't these multiplicities co-exist in a single heart? Just as a new kind of war is unfolding, it seems a vocabulary, and a new dialogue, must emerge to address its complexities.
It's a big land with lots of voices, and we, the collective, must seek out the right words. That might take a while.
Meantime, we'll meet again further down the road.
Reporter Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photographer Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-2297, or email@example.com.
Thirteen previous dispatches of Crossing America can be found at www.seattletimes.com.