In November 1998 I was traveling the country on a year-long assignment and at that point working on a piece on American discourse. I’d chosen Illinois as a prism: the various grounds of the Lincoln Douglas debates at one end and the Chicago-based Jerry Springer Show at the other. Springer agreed to let me hang out with him half a day, interview him and attend his show, thankfully not as a guest.
For the Sioux of South Dakota it’s been a tragic, unresolved legacy of exploitation in the Black Hills. The rape of the mountains by gold and uranium prospectors was followed by the carving of Mount Rushmore and, for the past 75 years, the ongoing desecration of the hills in the name of Crazy Horse–what was to be the largest sculpture in the world, but has turned into a lucrative tourist trap.
Virginia Lillico and her family spent their life in their homestead on land in the shadow of an ICBM missile silo in North Dakota at the height of the cold war and beyond. She never took safeguards seriously, thinking it was pointless.
It rises from wild grasses in Montana’s Golden Triangle, at the western extremity of the Great Plains, a massive hulk of concrete that makes no sense, that is as out of place as could be, and that will be there for thousands of years. It is a ghostly monument to the follies of the nuclear age.
Lewis and Clark traveled the longest distances of any state in Montana. Backtracking their trail is an exercise in contrasts: Indian voices could now be heard as they couldn’t then, but so can those of Lewis and Clark, vividly, wonderfully and sometimes disturbingly, while the landscape has either been remade or remains as intact as it was then.
The endless Alaska Highway is a famed road shrouded in impossible isolation and amnesia, where boundaries disappear into a twilight zone of the beautiful and the bizarre. It is an endless wormhole where the unexpected and the sublime are so common that they become monotonous, where the emptiness is so complete that you can feel like the last person on earth.
Big, brutal, poetic, a hero among states, Alaska has always been America’s national park of the imagination, a 600,000-square-mile invention colonized by a few tracts of reality. An exploration of Kodiak Island defeats a few stereotypes and reveals to what extent even Alaska is becoming a suburb of the Lower Forty-Eights.
The Colorado National Monument, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City and Wyoming frame reflections on the romance of the road, that essentially American love affair made of myths and wanderlust, and those insufferable RVs.
America is more paradox than exception, often more invention than reality, an invention as old as 1619 and as recent as the transformation of the American “heartland” into a utopia. The contradictions of Cedar Bluff State Park in Kansas tell a different story.
In the first of nine installments of his American Impressions series–a reporter’s journey across the 50 states–Pierre Tristam fills in details that marked his youth in war-torn Lebanon and defined his outlook before migrating to the United States and beginning a process of discovery that continues to this day.