Inching up the icy trail, we were acutely aware there were no railings to grasp if we slipped toward the snow-crusted mountainside. Fortunately, we arrived intact. There, in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, we contemplated the ancient stones of the Medicine Wheel. Looking out from the Wheel, we were dazzled; the view was like being on top of the world. Looking into the Wheel, we were humbled by the knowledge that indigenous peoples have trekked to this spiritual site for thousands of years.
Heat surpassed 102°F as clouds of dust stirred around our shoes. Cracked foundations and two crumbling pillars are the last remnants of the World War II-era Dalton Wells concentration camp for Japanese Americans. The sunbaked site in Moab, Utah, was otherwise marked only by a small plaque. It read in part:
May this sad, low point in the history of our democracy never be forgotten, in the hope that it will never happen again.
The gazebo seen in the infamous security video has been moved to a memorial in Chicago, Illinois. Nonetheless, this was undoubtedly the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio. We stopped by and found adults relaxing and children having fun. The day was sunny and bright, and it almost seemed inconceivable that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered here in broad daylight by a cop.
Water pounded us hard enough to soak under our ponchos at the Hurricane Deck halfway down New York’s Niagara Falls. Water had also pounded Percival, Iowa, where we witnessed acres of farmland still flooded after the Missouri River’s catastrophic overflows. In Butte, Montana, we surveyed the brilliant green waters of the Berkeley Pit, one of the most polluted Superfund sites. Old Faithful didn’t erupt with precision like the Bellagio’s fountains in Las Vegas, but it was more impressive. Michigan’s Flint River seemed as tranquil as the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool, belying the river’s role in the still-unresolved water crisis.
In Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, a wild bison rolled its eyes and then ignored us. In Nebraska, at the world’s largest zoo, a captive lioness did the same. Off the coast of Maine, a finback whale looked like maybe it was thinking about it.
We saw all this and more.
This summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to take a road trip across the country with my kids, ages 11 and 14. Across more than 10,000 miles and 30 states, America became our museum of nature, history, politics, and more. We saw, we learned, and we debated issues that didn’t always have easy answers.
Our major conclusions? First, America’s heroes are more complex than their myths. Second, it’s a big, spacious country, and its far-flung regions are more connected than we admit.
This post is the first of 4 parts, the sum of which was previously published on Medium.
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Photo © 2019 Tor de Vries.