Understanding America

I’ve just been on a road trip around the US, and I’ve figured out a few things about American culture which had previously eluded me.  You may well know these, but I’ve managed to hold a European superiority complex for thirty three years and not notice why American was the way it is

Firstly – the USA is vast.  Huge.  You can’t comprehend how bit it is.  Nor can you comprehend how big small parts of it are.  Looking at some of the deserts, plains and canyons, my mind just shut down and said “don’t really believe what I’m looking at”.  I think this vastness has an effect on the American psyche.  Its easy to understand why the US might be slow on the uptake with environmentalism.  American has a hell of a lot of environment.  And more of it is unspoilt.  And it seems inconceivable, looking at the vastness that there could ever be a lack of anything.

Secondly, the US is at one with nature.  This is going to take some explaining to my European brethren so hold tight:  As soon as you step outside of a city you see that nature controls where people build things.  Roads run alongside rivers.  They turn only to meet mountain passes.  And some close for months in the winter, because fighting nature would be crazy.  People use the wind to pump their drinking water from wells.  People farm – and sure, they irrigate the land to make it farmable – but only to the extent of their irrigation systems.  And when they top – nature returns.  People in America love the land – they hunt (which is natural) and they hike.  They travel around in monstrous RVs in order to be part of nature – not to raise a finger to it.  And sure, there are cancers.  LA is a huge growth which wants to spread out and encroach everything, killing all the nature in its path.  But there will be fighting back – and even now, the sprawl of LA is held at bay by mountains.

Thirdly, Americans are inquisitive.  They want to know about the world.  It may well be that there is so much of the USA they don’t have the time or opportunity to travel beyond it – but they want to hear about it.  They want to talk to travellers.  And they want travellers to enjoy the US as much as they do.

Forth, America remains a land of opportunity.  It may have terrible social mobility and a huge rich/poor divide, but it does something that no european country does:  it allows people in so called menial jobs to feel proud about what they do.  A new friend of mine out here has worked as a Barrista for several years, and he talked about it with pride – he talked to other barristas about it – and he talked about how some baristas are better at there jobs than he will ever be.  This is a man with dreams, a man looking forward.  But its also a man who is accepting the hand he is currently being dealt and making the most of it – in fact enjoying it thoroughly.  Because its a land where, if you value what it is you do, then what it is you do has value.  An land different from the carping criticism of Daily Mail Britain.

Finally, it isn’t all about politics.  In europe we’ve taken to seeing the US as a Red/Blue divide.  And thats wrong.  Its a country full of people – fascinating people – people who all look out at the world in their own way, and care about their families, friends and the travellers they meat.  They are individuals, shaped by their land, their communities, their isolation or submergence into urban sprawl, their faiths and their cultures -both present and those of their forefathers.  No one here talked to me about politics – but I’ve heard lots about churches, jobs, communities, friends, pets and travel.


This isn’t meant to be a love letter to the US.  Escaping the US insanities and returning to European and British insanities still feels like coming come – and I appreciate my home more and more.  But it is a lesson never to judge, and to walk a mile in someone elses shoes (or, in my case, drive 2000 miles in Hertz’s rented SUV)

Its a land of freedoms, restrictions, imbalances and communities and a home of the brave, the scared, the downtrodden and the optimistic.  And it is a land you have to visit to understand – 15 years of teleconferences haven’t given me half the idea of America that driving down its highways and interstates has offered.


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