|Skip introduction and take me straight to today's installment.|
An introduction to American Impressions: I was the luckiest reporter on the planet. I’d proposed to my editors at the Lakeland Ledger to send me across the country and write an essay on each of the 50 states. They went for it, handing me two credit cards, a camera and the vehicle of my choice--a Chevy Venture I rigged up with a library and a bed.
I spent 15 months alone on the road, logging 60,000 miles and four times as many words. The result anchored a weekly section throughout 1999, counting down to the millennium. What you’ll read here between Christmas and the New Year, when FlaglerLive traditionally pulls back on hammering you with hard news (and hammers you instead with pleas to support us), are the first few installments of that journey. While my reporting at the time forms the basis of the work, most of what you’ll read has not been published before. The rest has been extensively reworked and updated.
I was not traveling to discover myself or get away from myself, I was not in search of America or of eternal truths. I’m not equipped for that sort of thing, being rather shallow, and I wasn’t going to pretend to understand a state or even a village from a passing week. Nor is this a travelog about food or fun places to visit or quirky people I met along the way. I was just a reporter, picking up stories here and there, choosing for each state one or two themes that struck me as telling about that part of the country, and hoping to build a mosaic of an America every inch a wonder and a puzzle of joys and sorrows to an immigrant hopelessly in love with his adopted country, despite and still. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey.
--Pierre TristamPrevious installments:
1. Introduction: The Day Before America | 2. Heartland | 3. The Road | 4. Alaska: The New Suburb | 5. Alaska Highway | 6. Montana: Backtracking Lewis and Clark | 7. Montana: Ghost of the Prairie | 8. North Dakota: A Life in Missiles | 9. South Dakota: Crazy
The Switzerland of the Orient. The Paris of the Middle East. The jewel of the Mediterranean.
The crock of it all.
Lebanon was never the nation it made itself out to be. But it had its share of marketers, racketeers, really, who created a lie smelted out of pretty little illusions: Lebanon the land of tolerance, the intellectual haven, the pluralist oasis. A bit more gall and the mythmakers would have claimed that Christ summered in the Lebanese hills or skied around the Cedars. On April 13, 1975, the lie — my native home, my sweet memory, my once-upon-a-time-in-the-East — unraveled.
Remembering this in the fall of 1998 was unnerving. I didn’t like to think about it. I didn’t need to think about it. I was about to embark by myself on the journey of a lifetime across the 50 states, discovering them and writing about each over 51 weeks in a way most of us immigrants (all of us Americans) only dream of doing some day. Mostly by chance and a newspaper’s indulgence–an unlimited credit card, a van and a year to do with what I wished– my “some day” was here. I wanted to embrace it. Lebanon was a done deal.
And yet it wasn’t, because I could trace everything that I am and everything that I escaped, including escaping being Lebanese or being dead, to that Sunday in 1975.
It went like this: We’d spent the day at our summer home in the mountains with aunts and uncles and cousins, feasting on one of those epic Lebanese meza that demand an afternoon’s stamina and end, for the over-40 set, in a group slump. Our parents’ cigarette clouds and boring talk chased us kids outside. We played Bonanza. The parents napped. They woke up, smoked more cigarettes, then told us to get ready to leave for the city. We protested. They yelled. We relented, and by 7 p.m. we were back in Beirut.
An hour later my cousin Philippe called to spread the news. Somewhere in the city Palestinian guerrillas had ambushed Pierre Gemeyel, a Christian militia patriarch, at a church dedication earlier in the day. He survived. An aide didn’t. Christian militiamen retaliated by ambushing a bus-full of Palestinians and strafing everyone to death, by-standers and the required women and children included. Fighting had broken out between the two sides in a Beirut suburb. Maybe it’d turn out to be just another heave of tire burnings and idle shooting at the sky.
We’d known days like this since 1969, when Lebanon foolishly signed the Cairo Accord. It turned Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon into autonomous zones within the country and allowed Palestinian guerrillas to militarize and to wage their futile war against Israel from Lebanese soil–not including Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, not initially: he was actually the relative moderate among warlords. But he was outflanked by breakaway factions that the PLO eventually joined. Either way, the Cairo Accord was like injecting cancer cells in a patient with poor immunity. Since their Phoenician days the Lebanese have always been better at running businesses than countries.
Tensions kept building, especially between Palestinians egging on Muslims on one side and, on the other, Lebanon’s Christian minority, to which I belonged–a minority you could grossly compare to white Southerners of the Jim Crow era: entitled, bigoted, corrupt, their Christianity a form of supremacy they’d lorded over Muslims but were finding increasingly impossible to protect against Palestinians armored in Soviet weaponry, or against increasing public support for the Palestinian cause in reaction to Israeli bombings and raids (44 major Israeli attacks on Lebanese soil between 1968 and 1974). Animosities were fueled by factions itching for a fight amid the incompetence of a Christian-aligned central government, finally exploding into a war we’d been too smug to imagine that Sunday.
We began to hear the shelling during the night as fighting spread, although to me and my two older brothers it only meant we’d be spared school in the morning. The prospect of facing Jesuit teachers was more frightening than incomprehensible sounds outside our windows. That’s how Lebanon’s war with itself began: 15 years of futility that started the week Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer, two weeks and two days before America’s 15-year futility in Vietnam ended. I was barely 10, not a bad time for a childhood to end but not a particularly good way to end it.
I periodically look up news coverage of those early days in the Times Machine, guiltily counting my blessings that I somehow made it out. Those Beirut datelines of night battles, sniper fire, kidnappings, beheadings, were to frame the lives and deaths of a generation and haunt my nightmares, still today. Lebanon made the front page of The Times the Monday after the bus-strafing, and again two days later when the death toll reached 100. It would reach 50,000 by the time I left, 150,000 by 1990. Like a prophecy in newsprint, I could see the entire 15-year history of the war, my history, anyway, in those two articles, even in a single line: “The sound of guns reverberated through the dark and deserted streets while families huddled in their homes.”
We were those families, we were those huddlers, and those sounds — that thud of
not-so distant rocket-fire, that double whip-crack of sniper bullets, that aimless rat-at-at-at-at of 16-year-old militiamen suddenly gorging themselves on live ammo and the obscenity of their AK-47’s — those sounds still reverberate in my ears, a constant reminder of the lie that Lebanon proved to be, of “the vile parody of home,” as Vladimir Nabokov once called his ex-land.
As an ex-Lebanese I’d often be asked to explain “that mess over there,” as if it were an untidy room in the world’s house. The only answer that seemed to me justified is the answer the war dead would give: Who cares? Lebanese Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, each a hydra of factions and subfactions that tore at each other or among themselves. There were no white knights. They all made a bombing range of the land’s supposed holiness and cheapened human life in the name of a God or an Allah or a star of David, a grove’s boundary or the different pronunciation of a last name enough to turn two Semites into genocidal enemies before they’d join forces and turn on the next tribe. My memories of the old country were once rich with that “scent of Lebanon” Solomon sings about. They now stink of that Sunday. I didn’t know it yet but the unquestioned faith in God I’d been raised with died that day, seeding a revulsion for religion that persists, often unfairly, even as I write this.
A year later my father was dead, claimed not by the war, not directly, anyway, but by the sort of heart attack that doesn’t strike a 46-year-old man without accomplices — anxiety, broken dreams, the ruin of his photography business. He was black and blue from his embolism when I last saw him, laid-up dead amid a ring of mourners, as if beaten up. He was simply beaten.
Barely a week before his death he had returned from the United States and Europe, where he’d spent five months looking for a way out of Lebanon for us. He’d not taken to the United States–I mean, Lubbock, Texas? Who can blame him?
He couldn’t take the uprooting from a Lebanon he’d loved, a Lebanon that had made his and my mother’s fame and romance (they were fiercely, angrily in love these two), a way of life he could not do without. “I went to America, because you insisted so much,” he wrote her from Paris five weeks before his death. Life there, he wrote, “is far from easy. On the other hand, it’ll take more than three years for the children to adapt to an American ‘campus’ mentality, to the language, to the manners. Then it’ll immediately be time for college, each one will go his own way, and not next door, one will go to Houston, the other to Virginia etc… and us, very quickly, you and me, we’ll be alone at some far end of the USA.”
I don’t mean to paint an overly tragic picture. He died. We — my mother, my two brothers and I — didn’t. We retreated to the relative safety of our summer home away from the ravages of Beirut. We learned to duck and lay flat at the sound of whistling shells. We had fun grand-parents. We went to school more on than off, and had, despite the war, a blast. My mother for 15 years had been one of Lebanon’s famous TV personalities, hosting a live kids’ variety show, a radio show and writing a lifestyle page a week in Lebanon’s French daily. TV was out. The station was within sling-shot range of a Palestinian camp that double-bunked guerillas and refugees. Her newspaper and radio gigs continued, and she let me skip school to be with her for marquee interviews. Neither of us knew it then but she was enabling my lifelong disorder as a reporter. She profiled the big-wigs of the day — most of them mobsters and militia leaders with self-aggrandizing government or military titles, the type of people who did not tolerate tough questions unless the questioner was willing to end up headless in a ditch a few days later.
More novelist than journalist, and profiting from her minor celebrity status, my mother stuck to the psychological profile. Rather than infuriate her interview subjects–or risk her life–she’d frame hints and allusions in flattery and let readers infer the rest. She sometimes hosted dinner parties for the mobsters at our home. Men who would otherwise not officially speak to each other would end up sharing mother’s goulash around our dining room table. Bodyguards holed up in the kitchen outnumbered guests, for good reason. Several of the guests were eventually assassinated or exiled, including her bosses at the newspaper and the radio station — the Gemeyel brothers, Amin and Bashir, both of whom were quote-unquote elected president but only one of whom lived to serve out his term before enjoying his Parisian exile.
But three teen-age boys in the Lebanon of the mid-1970s were militia-bait. My mother worried that we’d eventually be drafted, as many boys were. The Phalangists’ militia–vaguely modeled on the Hitler Youth after Pierre Gemeyel visited Nazi Germany in 1936 as captain of the Lebanese Olympic team–was already conscripting my older brother into weekend “training” alongside the usual scum and riffraf that make up any and all militias. I say this entirely aware that without the Phalangists right about then most of us would have been massacred, but also convinced that without Christian nationalism’s chip on its shoulder for the preceding decades, Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims might have carried on more cohesively, as they had for centuries even before the Crusades. Lebanon’s Christian Maronites spread in the mountains in the 5th century, Muslims in the 7th. But for a few mutual massacres here and there and the civil war of 1860 between Christians and Druze, cohabitation was the rule. But there’s no place on earth where Christian nationalism’s sign of the Cross has been distinguishable from the swastika. Lebanon–my Lebanon, my Christian upbringing–was Exhibit A.
My mother wanted us out of there, and shipped out my two older brothers first, sending them to boarding school in England in January 1977. We were lucky. We had what most Lebanese by then didn’t have — the proverbial rich American uncle. Ours was a pathologist who’d never married and had plenty of money to bankroll the hard-up family back home. Oncle Michel to everyone. That’s who my father had been visiting in Lubbock. Three years into the war he paid for our escape, my mother and I. I’m not using the word lightly. That July in 1979 Syria had joined the fight on Palestinians’ side. We were in a state of siege again. For the first two weeks of the month the Syrian army blindly shelled Christian civilian zones, as if Gen. Curtis LeMay had come out of retirement on Syria’s side.
Then we had a lull. The last night I spent on Lebanese soil we were back in Beirut, in an apartment owned by one of the Gemeyel family members we’d long known before the war and who’d taken us under his wing. We were within blocks of the Murr Tower, the city’s tallest high-rise, an ugly, unfinished concrete hulk that came to be known as the Tower of Bitterness. It remains unfinished today, and was recently conceptualized as a 23,000-vault cemetery by a graduate student. Back then it was spiked with the muzzles of Syrian howitzers using the heights to pound Christian East Beirut. The bedroom I spent my last night in had a window with a direct line of sight to the tower and one of its guns.
The next morning we had to make it to Beirut International, at the south end of the city, crossing Muslim West Beirut and a parade of hostile roadblocks–PLO, Muslim leftists, Syrian. My mother and I were at the mercy of a Muslim driver our Gemeyel protector had hired, one of those amateur double-agents with a taxi who knew where to zigzag to avoid roadblocks, or what to say if we were stopped at an unfriendly crossing.
We drove through a part of the city I had not seen in three years, the part where my parents used to take us for movies and pizzas and the beach and shopping at Spinneys, an IKEA before IKEA. We crossed the poverty-ridden southern suburbs and zone of Palestinian camps at the edge of the airport–Sabra and Shatila, soon to be the scenes of the worst massacre of the war, by Christian militias and to the light of Israeli flares–the very same zone where a Hezbollah suicide bomber with a smile on his face would plow into the U.S. Marines’ barracks five years later, killing 241.
I was looking and I wasn’t looking as we drove. I had learned fright by rote by then. I was four months away from my 14th birthday, and still I had my head buried in my mother’s lap half the time in back of that taxi as the driver muttered and honked and cursed as Lebanese drivers do even in the best of times. We couldn’t possibly have gone through that expanse of anarchy without running into checkpoints. But the driver knew what to say.
Even now, I wonder at that luck, at the justice and injustice of being spared, at the thought that one moment I am on the lip of one precipice–a car bomb, a sniper’s bullet, a militiaman’s blade–and the next I’m standing on the lip of another–an Appalachian mountaintop, a window atop the World Trade Center, the Grand Canyon–looking at something awesome: not just the sights, but that sense of having gotten away with something. When I got cancer decades later my question couldn’t possibly be why me. It could only be: what took so long?
“Look, Ma, civilized grass,” I’d said wryly to my mother as we were landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, five hours after the plane soared over Beirut Bay and I saw the city of my birth for the next-to-last time. I had the same reaction in Kingsport, Tenn., where my uncle had moved by then and where we spent the summer as my mother traveled the United States on assignment for her Lebanese paper.
Kingsport was not a particularly enticing introduction to the United States, especially not when the winds blew in a certain direction, dousing the town in the smells of an Eastman Kodak plant. But those were the smells of industry, of a nation at work, not at war. So Kingsport was a magnificent city, as any safe place that wasn’t Lebanon would be to a boy who’d known nothing so vast and free of roadblocks, so organically green. Fatigues had been the dominant vegetation of my last three years. Here it was the green of Appalachian foothills.
Kingsport was an ugly mass of decomposing downtown buildings and lifeless suburban sprawls but its avenues were runways of groomed asphalt or grooved concrete, they were manicured in lush whites and yellows, bordered in bukharas of green. Signage was their decorative art, America’s grandest opus, my first introduction to American literature. I was amazed by the width of its avenues, the way drivers respected the lanes, the fact that there were lanes to respect, white lines, yellow lines, double lines, turning lanes. No one blew a horn. No one ran red lights. Every traffic light worked. Speed limits weren’t merely posted but enforced.
Between the sequencing of the traffic lights and the choreography of cars doing exactly what was expected of them, grid after grid of cars lined up just right, never straddling lanes, sidewalks or medians, between the oblivious calm of what few pedestrians could be seen and the inexplicable rarity of traffic cops, between the being of traffic’s heartbeat and the nothingness it took to keep it going so rhythmically, so perfectly, I found myself day after day longing to be on the roads, driven around by whoever could take me for whatever distance they could spare.
I remember with fondness my first drive-in experience at Wendy’s, girls’ bronzed and near-naked bodies at the municipal pool near Dobyns-Bennett High School, where we hung out every day, Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” playing somewhere every half hour and hourly newsbreaks that, unlike the cataclysmic nine minutes we heard about our own lives in Lebanon on the hour every hour from BBC World Service, passed off the most ridiculously pointless information about city councils and county commissions and baseball and celebrities as “news.” I was in playland. It was the summer of my first Coke on tap, my first kiss, my first trips to Montgomery Ward and Kroger, my unhealthy, emerging adolescent fetish for Interstates I may not have entirely shaken, though I would not learn to drive until I was 22.
A child doesn’t lose his homeland and forget it no matter how miraculous the road ahead. I missed Lebanon, broke down uncontrollably once and demanded that I be sent back, though maybe it was more from fear of spending a year in boarding school in England, Englishless and motherless, than out of affection for what was by then a daily butchery. People were shot with anti-aircraft guns, children were decapitated, whole villages were massacred. I didn’t exactly have a choice. I joined my brothers in England. I put up with the snot-nosed cruelties of English boys, who so enjoyed the fact that I couldn’t speak their language, but by Christmas that year I could say “fuck off” to the best of them and by spring could write my own English Letters. I had to: My mother had met an American journalist on her American trails, she had married him, and together they were repatriating us all under one roof, a family again, in New York City in the summer of 1979.
New life, new country, new dad. Only in America, as they say. And the new dad wasn’t the intolerable step-sort. He was every fiber an American, and better yet, a newsman who let me spend my adolescence in his television newsroom, albeit the television sort. There he was at John Kennedy Airport the day I landed back from England, Green Card in hand, a “resident alien” of a nation I had dreamily traveled so many times by finger on the National Geographic maps spread on the living room carpet back in Lebanon. I landed on July 19, 1979, a year to the day after I had left Lebanon, three years to the day after my father’s death.
I am not big on providence or cosmic coincidences. This one is an exception.
It would be nice to think that the day I arrived in the United States I fell in love with it. It wasn’t immediately the case. Immigrants become American with time, if they do. Many die still broken-hearted for the old country, their American adoption a convenience or a filial sacrifice. Many are crushed by the prospect of making it here. My father wasn’t wrong about what he feared of the United States.
But in 1979 I had everything going my way. I was 14 and adaptable when I arrived, I had an American father to ease the transition, not to mention pay the bills of choice schools. His affection for New York proved transferable so that I am now more fond of some parts of the New York subway than I am of most memories of Lebanon. Commuting through the city’s tunnels for seven years without once being mugged, in those days of prime crime also helped. By the time I raised my right hand to take the oath of citizenship in a Brooklyn courthouse, on a cool December day in 1986, I imagined I had shed Lebanon willfully and entirely. I had shed my Catholicism, my mother tongue, had even shed my father’s name to create my own. I considered myself, happily and without reserve, finally, an American. No illusions why: Lebanon had taken away. America had given. It seemed as simple as that, though of course it never is.
I can say with sincere sappiness: I love this country with all my heart. There is no other place I’d rather be, and as you’ll read in subsequent chapters, I get strangely anxious when I’m away from it for too long. At the same time I don’t mean to hoist hymnal flags to the republic. Love of country to me should be mostly private and modest, or at least expressed in more personal, more meaningful ways than Pavlovian ceremonies. Loud patriotism gives me the creeps, especially in group settings.
I love the beauty of the words and rhythms of the Pledge of Allegiance and its socialist inspiration. But I can’t bring myself to recite it publicly, especially with its 1954 corruption. This may sound absurd to you, even offensive, and I completely understand, though maybe you can begin to understand my discomfort if you’ve read this far: I can’t shake the echoes between the Pledge of Allegiance, militiamen’s oaths to “God, Homeland, Family” and the Nazi salute. We once believed and recited those oaths in Lebanon, under threat, even as the oath-keepers blasphemed God, demolished the homeland and massacred families.
We believed because we didn’t question. Submission is often confused with patriotism, or faith for that matter, when it is the first step to complicity in the indefensible. Lebanon’s demise had a lot to do with blind acceptance of monochromatic ideologies that reduced allegiances to slogans the way they reduced human beings to good and evil, worthy of life and not worthy. There was nothing in between, not even allowable silence. Shouts drowned out reason, and when the shouts weren’t enough anymore, blades and guns did.
My silence today is not against the Pledge. It is merely in mourning for a silence not respected enough. The United States isn’t immune to that slippery slope. It’s the country of extremes, and these days it feels as if we are losing our balance. Our extremes had always been tempered by a reverence for law and a healthy, grudging faith in government. That balance kept the American experiment alive, and on the whole, successful. It kept us immigrants coming. I’m not sure the balance is quite balanced these days.
Even in 1998, when I was setting out on this journey across the country, the version I wrote for the newspaper at the time described how loud American patriotism was, and how smug it had become. Experimenting was out, self-satisfaction was in. Politics even then was mostly about choreographed insults, television a boom-box of shout-shows and scandal. Imagining a golden age is the bane of American perspective. But there really is not much difference between the America of Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump. Only the volume has gotten louder, the filters and inhibitions less pronounced, thanks to social media. Government had become the enemy since Ronald Reagan’s first campaign in 1976. Compromise by the 1990s was considered dull, virtue a partisan weapon. The nation’s fabric was fraying.
The 1960s marches on Washington were about inclusion and hope. By the booming 1990s they’d become about exclusion and fear. Each new march was a circle of wagons, its self-contained million Black men or white Christians or multicolor gays and lesbians grumbling at the world instead of mingling with it, if often for good reason. Hyphenated Americans were everywhere. Walls, too. Gated communities were segregating the suburban landscape even more than mausoleum-like subdivisions. So were ads that gloried SUVs to navigate the guerilla neighborhoods of our cities. We were going down an ugly road then, though again: I prefer resisting the snares of golden age nostalgia. The country is changing, as it always has, as it always must. It’s not going well, and in some ways, as Edward Luttwak warned in the 1990s (he predicted Donald Trump in 1994), we’re becoming a second-rate nation with increasingly fascist tendencies. But I don’t know that we can say that it’s getting only worse after the first Black presidency, the legalization of gay marriage, the widest democratization of speech in history, the lowest level of poverty in our history.
I returned to visit JFK Airport on the 19th anniversary of landing there with my Green Card. It had become the sort of third-world quality airport Luttwak complained about, where “the chronic disorganization of perfectly routine procedures” reigned. The New York Times panned its “well-earned reputation as one of the least hospitable of the world’s transportation hubs.” The lipstick on that pick were yellow and gold banners and pennants all over roads and buildings celebrating the airport’s 50th anniversary. “Welcome To JFK Where America Greets the World,” one banner proclaimed. It may be the new Ellis Island, but in today’s JFK there are as many No Entry signs as there are barriers, steel-secured doors and forbidding security guards whose job is to ensure that only certain people cross certain lines. International greetings in the age of globalization and falling borders have become more, not less, guarded.
Walking around the terminal where I had landed, I found Emma Lazarus’s famous words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” The words were inscribed in yellow letters on a black marble wall that hadn’t been polished in a long time, or so it looked from behind the bullet-proof pane beyond which I wasn’t allowed.
Miss Liberty’s words are out of the way. The shops aren’t. The terminal was being refurbished the way of every neighborhood sprawl so that by 2001, a sign proclaimed, the 1.5 million square-foot “light-filled terminal” would include a “100,000 square-foot magnificent retail hall, which will include food courts, restaurants, duty-free shopping and a wide variety of special stores.”
When President Truman had dedicated the airport in 1948, back when it was more poetically called Idlewild, he saw the place as “the front door for the United Nations” headquartered in New York. “Men and women from the far corners of the earth will land here in their search for peaceful solutions to their countries’ difficulties.” When the airport was rededicated as John Kennedy Airport in December 1963, barely four weeks after the president’s assassination, New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes said it created a “perpetual message to those millions who will pass through this threshold to a great land.” When the international terminal’s $10.3 billion redevelopment was yet again re-dedicated in May 2001–the day police in an Arizona border town uncovered the deaths of 14 migrants abandoned in the desert by smugglers–Lewis Eisenberg, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, hailed baggage carousels that can handle 3,200 passengers per hour and “first-rate restaurants and shops.” If luggage wasn’t getting lost, American idealism was.
I don’t mean to be gloomy. Unlike most trips to airports, my day at JFK was almost exhilarating. Truman’s hopes for the airport as a doorway to diplomatic peacemongers may not have come true, but that may be because the real United Nations is not located in that dirty-green, anorexic building on Manhattan’s East River but in the city, and to a lesser extent across the nation that surrounds it. Eavesdropping while sitting at JFK’s Starbucks was like tapping into an international phone exchange. There was a time when the languages heard in airports were limited to French, German, Dutch, Portuguese — the voices of the old colonists then traveling the world in search of lost glory.
The voices you hear now are Malay, Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Hausa, Swahili, Chinese. The colonized have become the new colonists, converging on America in their sarongs and dreadlocks and chadors to mix with cut-off jeans and yarmulkes and midriff shirts. Most of the new colonists would always remember their first day in the States, their first hours at JFK.
I knew by then that I would be traveling across the country, and I wanted to begin at my Plymouth Rock, retailed and barricaded as it was. When I became American in 1986 I’d pledged to myself that I would one day travel the country, walking and breathing every state — not as a sight-seer or even a seeker–I don’t see the need to search for what’s already there–but as an observer. I didn’t know when or how that journey would take place, only that it would.
Immigrants like to journey back through their genealogy and return to the land of their ancestors. I was reversing the flow. I wanted to journey out from my past into the land I’d chosen to be mine and immerse myself in its multi-meridian moods. I would draw a personal portrait of the nation, my landmarks in every state made of impressions, not monuments, my aim to fill in an immigrant’s cultural genealogy. Muslims have their hajj. This would be mine. The pilgrimage across my 50 Meccas would at most be a modest fulfillment of my citizenship, but without pretending to be telling this country’s story. That would be diminishing it. And I have neither the skills nor the imagination.
“There are too many realities,” John Steinbeck wrote in his Travels with Charlie. “What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find.” What follows is the America that I found — as untidy, as contradictory, as excessive as was my gratefulness to have found it.