There would appear to be something deeply ironic about our country’s name today.
To look at an electoral map, with it’s blues on the coasts and red in the middle, makes a clear enough case that at least politically there is nothing united about these states at all.
But upon further inspection, our geographic borders and how they came to be, tell another story altogether.
In his new book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, Robert Kaplan takes us on a road trip from New York to California. He does not take the six-hour flight from coast to coast. But as his father, a truck driver, once told him, he has to “earn the Rockies.” Which is to say, he has to drive.
He is recreating a road trip he took in the 70’s. But while that was a quintessential youthful attempt to find himself, this latest journey is an effort to find his country.
He does not interview anyone or embed himself in any place. He just drives. Stopping to eat and sleep. Most of all, he listens and observes. What are people talking about in diners and in the streets?
As he eavesdrops, we do also. If you are interested in understanding America and how we got to where we are, I strongly encourage you to read this book. It is simultaneously touching and unapologetic.
Most of us don’t really live in “our country.” We live in our town, our city or our state. We fly over places we don’t understand. Perhaps occasionally dropping in to visit a small sliver of some place else but not really seeing it.
In describing how our geography defined our character, Kaplan notes that America has more miles of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The fact that they flowed diagonally allowed the free flow of goods, commerce and ideas across large disparate swaths of land. In other words, they literally united our states.
It seems that fewer ideas or experiences in our country flow across anything. Instead they fly directly to points similar from whence they came.
We are blessed to live in a country whose borders have largely protected us from external harm. This is a luxury countries in Europe, Asia, South America or Africa cannot claim.
As result, our threats or challenges have seldom come from foreign lands, but rather from within.
Whether crossing the Rockies to settle the west or sitting down in a bus seat to cross the lines of segregation, we are a country of pioneers who overcame barriers in an effort to unite the different parts of us.
Borders and boundaries are all within a car drive for all of us. It is much simpler to cross them physically then mentally. Yet our efforts to do either are lacking.
We are in dire need of more pioneers willing to travel into unchartered territory and more channels where ideas can flow more easily across divergent lands.
Until then the irony in our name will persist and the division that comes with it.
So are you up for a road trip? You never know what states you might unite along the way.