Independence Day

Sitting on the front porch of this Federal house on the intersection of two quiet country roads in upstate New York, I discover it was once a gentleman’s farm. Apparently he grew apples and tended poultry here in the summer, and in winter he went across country to California to farm there. East coast and west coast: two different worlds on this vast continent called the United States.

On this July 4th Independence day, as my north-eastern friends quietly celebrate this important birth day with food cooked on the barbecue and intellectual conversation, I am only half listening to what is being said. My mind is wandering over the Redwood forests and Pacific coastline, through low desert and high desert and into the great plains that I have just ridden across in my faithful VW camper van. My body arrived on the eastern seaboard a day ago yet my emotions and spirit are trailing behind, holding onto wonderful memories that are worthy of savoring for months to come.

I take a quick look at a journal that I had begun way back at the start of this year in northern California, and recount the strong political voice of environmentalists talking of the Redwood forests, sustainable farming and local communities. There is a flavor of the wild west in California that I had not realized before, distinctly different from the apparently more detached air of the northeast.

As my mind continues to wander through fields of corn and pastures of cattle, I remember the warmth and friendliness of the mid west states of Oklahoma and Missouri and the people I met on old route 66, young and old alike attracted there by the values of a bygone era. This “the mother road” of America, the first interstate that connected the heartland with the wild west, is undergoing a resurgence, it seems. As people search for meaning and interconnectedness in a world that has moved at a pace too fast for the human psyche to follow, is there still a common thread that unites this land and its people, I wonder.

How can I possibly begin to describe this great land and what it is to be American? How do I write about ‘the true spirit of America’ that I have been in search of while driving from west to east all these months?

This vast continent is one of states as large as some European countries, each proud of its way of life and often at odds with a government whose center is a long way away in distance and in its thinking. The wild west of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is about as different as you can get from the cool intellectualism of  New Jersey, New York, and New England. Yet even in this day and age where the optimism of the American dream is eclipsed by the worst recession that most have experienced and daily news of the Gulf oil disaster brings more doom and gloom, there is still an underlying belief that this nation will prevail. Despite all, there still exists the intensity and desire to be ruggedly independent and to create one’s own order.

Does this fiery spirit come from those immigrants who left the confines of Europe to break free and create a new dream or is it in the earth itself, and what is it that keeps it alive?

Perhaps it is the vast open backdrop of this huge and wide continent that keeps the American spirit boundless, alive and free. When the terrain is so vast and its people so varied, it is not possible for the human psyche to do anything but expand beyond the horizon of what the eye can see or the ear can discern.

And as I listen to the voices I have heard and recall the surprise of Californians who thought they had no accent, Texans who smiled when I joked that I sounded just like them and Oakies with their rich, golden tones, I pause to find one word to sum up the spirit of America.

And then I chuckle, for it’s most apt today of all days. The one word is Rebellious!

Rebellious! So very obvious really and I laugh aloud as if I had never thought of it before.