Saturday, July 18, 2015

America the Beautiful

My good friend Sofia just wrote a letter telling me how she’s fallen in love with Spain yet again. The reason? A festival in the north of Spain every bit as colorful and powerful and celebratory of life as anything we saw in Ghana. Many decades ago, having traveled for a year searching for —and finding—such festivals in India, Nepal, Thailand, Bali and Japan, I could understand her enthusiasm. If I have any legacy at the school I’ve taught at for 40 years, it is bringing that fascination with and passion for communal celebration into a school community.

At the end of a week in the Colorado mountains, I too have fallen in love again with my native country. But it isn’t because of our festival life. It’s simply because of the heartbreaking beauty of this land. The Rocky Mountains, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Cascades, Big Sur and more. Here I’m accenting the grandeur of the West, but there’s also the intimacy of the East Coast woods, the southern Everglades, the mid-Western shores of Lake Michigan. A beauty mostly preserved in one of the best ideas our country has had—National Parks. Without them, I shudder to think what might have happened as the developers and strip-maulers slashed their way across the country, reducing everything to flatland malls and utilitarian uses.

I think my first hint of the wide open skies of the West came from a Dennis the Menace Goes to California comic book. But my imagination was more expertly and articulately captured by one of my first “favorite” books—Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Though the extent of my travels beyond New Jersey was to Florida (aged 5) and Toronto (aged 12), there was some seed of wanderlust already sewn into my heart that Steinbeck helped water and bring to bloom. Soon after came Whitman’s poem The Song of the Open Road, Jack Keruoac's On the Road and finally, my own life hitchhiking across the country as a 20-year old. And then driving across and around with my own children—and reading Travels with Charley out loud to them. It held up.

And so the amber waves of grain and purple mountain’s majesties remain wonders to behold and thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, protected somewhat from the invasion of ugliness. Yes, there are the mandatory stores selling kitsch no one ever needs, not ever. There is the parade of Winnebagos, the tourists clicking away to capture the scenery they’re not wholly experiencing, the occasional hiker with his portable boombox playing loud music. But mostly there is the patient presence of mountains, the shimmering aspens, the thundering waterfalls and trickling streams, the chirping chipmunks and majestic elk, the air so fresh and not available to bottle and sell at Costco. You just have to be there.

And I’m grateful that I was.

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