Tag Archives: United States

Crossing Borders

During a morning walk in suburban Florida this week, I passed this pile of discarded plastic flamingos on a lawn that looked cared for but not really used, and I couldn’t help but think about the American dream as we approach the inauguration of the next president. America is going through some funky, disturbing times. There is a sense of mourning among many, and yet, also around the corner from my rented house here in Cape Coral, Florida, a Trump/Pence sign, so not everyone is mourning. Also on my walk, a young guy greeting me “good morning” while holding a rifle in each hand, manatee-shaped mailboxes, and upright pink plastic flamingos adorning lawns filled with plastic candy canes and inflatable polar bears.

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Honestly, as I hang out in Florida, I’m in shock that I’m still in the same country that is also home to Portland, Oregon, and to Chicago and to Shamrock, Texas (had a layover there back in 1998), and to New York City, my backyard for the last 13 years. The fact we’re still a union at all answering to the same red, white and blue flag stuns me, and we should consider this progress even though there’s so much vitriol and bipolarity and -isms right now. We are 50 *very* different states. I celebrated my first birthday in Texas; I grew up in upstate New York; I lived in Seattle, then moved to Washington, D.C. (not a state, I know). I got married in Vermont. I have driven the width of the Contiguous 48 three times. I have visited 30-plus of America’s diverse states—haven’t yet visited Alaska or Hawaii—and each state functions as their own little universe. I lived in New Hampshire for six months about 20 years ago. New Hampshire, despite a shared geography with Vermont, has a completely different mindset from the Green Mountain State; it’s like comparing New Mexico with Arizona, or North Carolina to South Carolina, two states that still cannot agree on the proper way to serve barbecue. Despite shared borders, these are not apple-to-apple comparisons by any stretch. Why is that? Why do things change so much when you cross borders drawn by dead white guys?

It’s easy to happily function inside your bubble, mingle among like-minded people, never go beyond your borders, but I like going to other people’s bubbles, even if we disagree on who should lead America or the Second Amendment or the nutritional value of almond milk. America is just that, a string of bubbles, and communities feel increasingly less inclined to Venn-diagram with one another. Someone looked surprised when I mentioned I wasn’t going to unfriend Trump voters. I even had brunch a few weeks ago with a staunch Republican, who is a dear friend of mine. Our bubbles overlapped over eggs and Bellinis.

I’ve been fascinated by regionalism and differences long before Trump shocked millions of us by winning the electoral vote. To answer my own query, I started reading Lewis and Clark’s journal entries earlier this year, trying to picture what America looked like before being claimed, parceled and mapped out, before Texas was briefly its own Republic, before Abraham Lincoln had to fight to keep the country from ripping itself apart, before Los Angeles turned into Tinsel Town, before Wal-Mart took over the landscape, before “coastal elitism” became a term. Lewis spends several—and I do mean several—pages lamenting about the morning fog slowing things down, perhaps not thinking that two centuries later, a 40-something suburban mom who hates America’s ubiquitous malls and themed parks would be scanning his words for clues. Entries are spelled out phonetically, so it’s not smooth, intuitive reading; his meditations about what America used to be require stepping away from the puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. And I’m still not sure on the answers, on when all these political, social and cultural tectonic shifts began, or where they’re going, and maybe these changes are harder to gauge because these movements are still moving.

Had America not been so goddamn big, had Sacagawea said to Lewis and Clark: “Find your own way! Jean Baptiste needs his nap!” or had Napoleon not needed to sell off “Louisiana,” which constitutes most of middle America, to fund his warmongering, what would America look like now? Who would be assuming power in four weeks? Where would the red and blue states be? Is there a singular American culture anymore or are there many American cultures? Those who drink their coffee with soy-free almond milk versus those who prefer whole milk from cows that grazed on pesticide-treated grass, and everyone else in between? Who is America today?

These “what if’s” are folly, as all “what if’s” are. Regionalisms will always prevail, no matter how much the Internet attempts to globalize us. As I write this, I am playing George Michael’s 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” a thoughtful, moody album about working out our differences, finding some common ground, and breaking free from the shoulds, coulds, and woulds. I keep replaying “Cowboys and Angels” a wispy, jazzy tune that feels like clouds floating by—perfect for a lazy day in Gulf Coast Florida. The day after tomorrow, I will be in a car with my husband and tween, driving about 800-plus miles back north, dreading the Northeast’s go-go-go attitude, its cold and darkness, missing clouds and sunshine and plastic flamingos and swimming pools surrounded by chintzy Christmas decor. All these things are closer than I realize, they appear not so far when I look at a map, yet when I am back in suburban New York City in just a few days, these things might as well be on the moon. We will cross seven states to return to New Jersey, a state that I thought would only be a pit stop, that after 13 years of keeping a residence there, still doesn’t feel like home. And as I pass through each state, I’ll be wondering who America is becoming, where are we going? And will we all get there together?

More Thoughts on Camping

Memorial Day weekend approaches, which for some strange reason signals the beginning of the barbecue season, the pool season, and the pitch-a-tent-outdoors season. When we lived in Seattle, people went camping the way I run to the grocery store for milk. You packed up your gear, drove in some direction and within less than an hour you were pitching a tent in God’s country and telling stories by a campfire. That’s harder to do here in metropolitan New York City, and even once you drive two hours in any direction from the Big Apple, you’ve barely reached the border between retail-centric suburbia and dying mom-and-pop shop smalltown.

We’ve always liked to mix it up, from five-star amenities (which we did in Quito and Quebec) to sleeping on the earth. Before my suburban mom life in metro New York City, I camped in several national and state parks. My national park list is not as impressive as I’d like it to be, but it will grow, and so far includes repeat stays at: Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland where wild horses strut across the sand past RVs; Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, where I saw this very haunting and lovely shadow of a deer nibbling grass near our tent; and Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, where I went whale watching and ate blueberry pie.

Just the words “national park” imply something sacred and shielded from the rest of the world. The parks are as unique as faces and have their own distinct rhythms and stories to tell. Assateague is a real treat if you time it right; June is a gorgeous time of year in the salt marshes with hot sunny days and clear, chilly, though comfortable evenings (if you’re dressed warm enough and have thermal sleeping bags–it does get brisk by the ocean). However, July is a completely different story at Assateague; it’s humidity at its worse, and when we visited, we battled thunderstorms and mosquitoes. The bugs were so bad that even when I stood by the campfire to eat breakfast thinking the smoke would deter them, the mosquitoes would kamikaze into my orange juice or coffee. Despite that negative experience, I did not sell our gear when we got home (you’ll see why that’s significant in a moment). Other national parks on my list include Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon, but I only visited there, and did not get a chance to camp. Later this summer, we’ll visit Redwood National and State Park in California. I have yet to visit our first national park Yellowstone, which predates the creation of the National Park Service by more than 40 years.

My most memorable camping experience occurred in Orick, California, where we camped on the beach and feared the state icon–the brown bear–sniffing out our S’mores and mauling us to death. Aside from the bears, the weather was a bit rough. We tried to cook pasta and enjoy it with red wine, but it was so cold and windy on the beach that our food chilled the second it was removed from the campfire and our tent was blown down repeatedly. Sand constantly blew into my eyes, nose and mouth. After a few hours of this, I was hoping a giant bear would find us just so we could have an excuse to leave. I got so fed up with the whole trip that I sat in Mike’s 1987 Dodge Aries reading the The New Yorker while Mike being Mike tried to salvage the weekend. Once we were back home in Seattle, I immediately sold all our camping equipment to a colleague. A few years later, missing the land and wanting to sleep under the stars again, we went back out and bought new gear.

Families frequently use camping and escapes to Mother Nature as a way to switch off and reconnect. You don’t need to wait for summer vacation to do unplug. Last weekend, I went to our local nature center and sat listening to the birds while my iphone sat idly by. I felt like I was listening to the soundtrack at the spa. Just a few minutes of tuning into the breezes and the birds and not compulsively checking email was fantastic! My daughter seems to be a budding conservationist and she’s at a great age to learn more about our national parks and transition from occasional participant, which is what I am, to active advocate.

That said, if we want to continue to have quiet green spaces to enjoy, we need to protect them. Modern development, political interests and greed constantly encroach on the borders of lands sworn to public protection. Visit the National Parks Conservation Association website and there’s a laundry list of rules looking to be made unofficial by our officials, with everything from allowing the hunting of wolves to the building of coal plants. If you care about sharing national parks with future generations, I hope you will support the National Park Foundation’s efforts to salvage what’s left. In some ways, I suppose we’re lucky to have what we have. It can feel wonderous and depressing to imagine what the United States looked like before Interstate 90 connected the East Coast to the West Coast, when Lewis and Clark had to find their way through thickets of lush forest and national parks weren’t “national parks” but simply land that stretched on to the heavens.