The USA is so many things. World policeman. Imperial power. Nation of immigrants. The home of the free. International bully boy. Inward looking nation of rednecks. Jesusland. The gun capital of the world. The protector of democracy.
In the middle of this mass of contradictions and paradoxes – in Kansas, so literally in the middle – I met Viktorija. She’s the owner of the local paper round there, the Sheridan Sentinel, and we passed the hours of a hot dusty Kansas afternoon chatting about my journey, the US and how life looks from the rural Midwest, where one road leads thirty miles in either direction to the next collection of a few thousand souls.
“I want to use you as an example,” she told me, “lots of people don’t realise how hard it is to come here.” Indeed, I’d already become bored of these people’s surprised refrain of “You need a **visa** to come to the US?!” Yes, and it cost me nearly 300 pounds, a day off work and a sceptical questioning at the desk of an official in the new Gattaca-inspired London embassy while hundreds of other tiny figures queued outside, waiting to try their luck at being admitted to the land of the free.
In Kansas again, Viktorija and I discussed how there was tremendous freedom of movement within the States. Though some people never left their hometown, it would be nothing remarkable if going through Georgia I ran into someone who’d moved from Alaska, thousands of miles away – as indeed I had. “You see”, Viktorija went on, “some of those states are far more culturally different than some of the countries in Europe.”
Possibly. It’s certainly true that if you teleported from Alabama to Washington you’d have to be pretty thick not to notice the difference. It’s true that there have been several distinct cultures and experiences on my trip, from the coasts where every piece of land was owned by someone who wanted $30 for me to pitch my tent there, to the vast interior where I might not see a soul for tens of miles. There were the millionaire playboys, pensioners and ‘snowbirds’ of Miami have way to the divisions, stereotypes and multifarious liquor laws of the Deep South, to the prim conservatism of the Midwest to the climber hours of Colorado, to the Stetsons, horses and deserts of the West, to the hipsters of San Francisco and the macho loggers of the Pacific Northwest. However, having now ridden through fourteen of the lower forty eight, seeing each at the snail’s pace of a touring cyclist, I’m going to have to beg to differ. You can get the same type of bad coffee at the same gas stations all over the US. While you’re drinking it, you can talk the same language about the same politics and entertainment shows, celebrate the same holiday on the fourth of July and view the world with the same American eyes.
Suddenly the views of the Mormons who had once rocked up on my doorstep back in York began to make sense. Fresh off the plane, they’d told me how the glorious peak of liberal freedom in America had allowed God to make his full revelation to humanity through Joseph Smith, in a way that the oppressors of the old world had never allowed Him to do before. Manifest Destiny indeed. Those two Mormons left my for with a piece of advice ringing in their ears: cut the jingoism and learn that the rest of the world doesn’t shares your country’s view of its own achievements.
The United States’ size will probably inevitably breed a certain amount of insularity: they have so many beautiful places that are so much more accessible without the need to fly over oceans, that why would anyone want to leave? The consequence though is the ease with which myths can develop: witness the men in the Alabama garage who insisted on telling me that Europe was being overtaken by Muslims, who wouldn’t accept my thirty years’ experience to the contrary. Sadly, he wasn’t the only one. Witness the 7th Grade writing competition, subject “Why Our Veterans are Heroes”, with its entries stuck on the wall in a bar I visited in Utah. As likely as it was that these school kids had never met an actual veteran, it was equally likely that any veterans they did meet would be the only people they knew who’s every been to a foreign country – hence all the insularity, hence the slightly paranoid view of the world beyond their borders and hence the hagiography surrounding these mythical veterans.
It isn’t all like that though. Al Humphreys in his journal of a walk across India, notes that he overwhelmingly meet the poor people when he stayed in the doss houses and the roadside tearooms, while the middle classes were working away in their call centres. Similarly, I’ve met a cross section of American society but it’s been a skewed one, skewed towards the inhabitants of gas stations and cheap supermarkets, and those who have the most time to hang around in the road and in the RV parks. My experience hadn’t been exclusively limited to that though, and I’ve met groups of middle class kids who were eagerly saving up to go to Europe and do the ‘grand tour’ just as British as European noble youth did in centuries past, touring the art houses and being schooled by the great teachers of the continent. If these are the minds set to run the America of the future, I have hope.
Is the US a collection of distinct states them, or is it a unitary whole? It’s both, but with an emphasis on the latter, and if my trip through its cities and plains has done anything, it has left me feeling more European.
There are some things we Europeans have in common and in which we differ from America: we have small houses and small cars, we walk places and take the train, we’re more scared of guns than we are of alcohol and we don’t usually shout out our religion at the world in general. However, it’s what makes us different that unites us, and what makes us different is … difference. People do things differently in other countries, and living cheek by jowl as we do in our undersized and overcrowded continent, we’ve (mostly) learned to accept that.
Back in England, for as little as £30 I can get a ferry to three different countries which each have tongues that make me alien, a set of jokes that I don’t understand and a politics that doesn’t affect me. Not only that but their languages create a shared national consciousness, a discourse and a set of reference points that I can never share. I’ll never read Flaubert in the original or take pride in my country having produced his work, yet 20 miles away in Calais my contemporaries can do both. I’m fine with that and that’s the point: it’s a precondition of living in Europe that you accept that sort of thing, whereas the big difference in the US is that you don’t have to. There’s enough space in America that whatever your lunacy you can find somewhere to practice it undisturbed. Whether that’s a good thing though, well, that’s what leaves me ambivalent.
So, whither America now? The new world across the Pacific is snapping at their heels; will they look across the Atlantic to join the ranks of the old, or will they continue to plough their own path, such in the middle of two oceans between the two sides of Eurasia? That is anybody’s guess, but there are three things I can say for certain. The first is that there are very many kind and friendly people here, I’ve met a lot of them and many of those have opened up their homes to me. The second is that I haven’t regretted coming here for a single minute. My third and final conclusion is that notwithstanding the first two, absence and contrast have made the heart grow fonder. When I return to my home country and home continent, my two months in this grandest of all countries will make me cherish them all the more.