I have just driven across the US for the third time. My trip from Belmont, a small town south of San Francisco, to Vienna, another small town east of Washington DC, has been an adventure and an education. We called it “Making Sense: Touring with Fair Observer,” and is meant to be the start of many journeys through different parts of the world to discover the issues regular folks care about and to include their voices in a global discourse.
Let us get back to America for now, a grand and glorious country that spans sea to shining sea. The landscapes are stunning, the climates differ wildly and the diversity of the folks who live here is staggering. Years ago, I ran away from home and walked across north India. It opened my eyes to the India beyond the big cities. I discovered folks in little villages, cycle repair fellows sitting by the side of the road, tea stalls where folks would watch speeding trucks maneuvering through a tumult of stray dogs, bullocks and bicycles, and the hospitality of country folks who fed me and invariably provided me shelter for the night. My journeys across America have been similar and have been the highlights of my time in the country.
When MR asked me to write a blog about the trip, I did not even know where to begin, what to mention and what to omit. So, let me begin with the beginning. I set off on my tour driving through a storm as we sped to Santa Cruz. The thunder, lightning and the rain with the dark Pacific to my right provided an awe inspiring setting, and captured my inner tumult as I set out to learn more about America. The very next day I drove through Big Sur and was blown away by the landscape. The last time I drove through Big Sur was in 2004. At the time, I was a corporate lawyer in London. The grandeur of the vistas, the sense of space and the feeling that more things were possible made me move to America. The American dream is a real thing that moves immigrants when they come to its shores. It certainly infected me at a time I was on a low, living in the capital of the Old World and chafing against the conformity of British society that was asphyxiating me day by day.
Beyond the stunning landscapes, the glorious sunsets, the sparkling stars, and the storms with thunder, lightning and rain, what made the “Making Sense” tour memorable were the people I met along the way and the stories they had to tell. Whilst driving past the Gibraltar Reservoir and Lake Cachuma en route to Santa Barbara, I spoke to a waste management person who told us how the area had gone from being farm land to one where vineyards and horses dominated. Farmers are selling their land to rich folks who often work in Los Angeles and drive or fly in to their new residences. Even rural America is being transformed and the urban equivalent of gentrification is starting to happen in picturesque landscapes close to big cities. At a gas station near Salt Lake City in Utah, three local women mentioned that the environment was their top concern. They talked about smog, public transport and recycling. At Kearney in Nebraska we met Mike Konz, Managing Editor of Kearney Hub, a flourishing local newspaper read by a third of Kearney’s population. On the one hand Mike wanted less regulation and decreased public spending but, on the other hand, he wanted a better educated America and a more rational immigration system that makes it easier for folks to come to America legally. Clearly, the traditional divides of American politics do not quite operate that neatly and Mike was alarmed at the logjam in Washington DC. Actually, folks around the country are not exactly thrilled with their capital and their politicians.
The two places that blew me away most were not Chicago or New York but Des Moines and Iowa City. In both places, I met one interesting person after another. When my car would not start, Natalie, my new coffee shop friend waited despite not feeling very well to jump start our car. The next day, as I was about to leave, some folks invited us to a bar named GT, which I was struggling to locate. A construction worker on a motorcycle who was driving without wearing a helmet and in a state of some inebriation saw us meandering at a snail’s pace on the road and led us there. We had one of our finest conversations in the bar over the next couple of hours. Paul, a musician who performs all around the world and has worked with Prince and Dolly Parton, and Ryan, who runs a PR agency, talked about discourse, the increasing control of big conglomerates over smaller media organizations and the conflicts inherent in journalism when organizations set out to profit maximize. They talked about a million experiments in democracy underway in America today with the conflict between federal and state law on marijuana in many places. They insisted that I had to stop at Iowa City and told me that it was a hotbed for writers. I took their advice and had a most magical day there. Throughout the day, I had one interesting conversation after another about politics, culture, food, travel and more. I could go on forever and those who want to read my day to day account of my journey can click here. It has been an honor and a privilege traveling across America and I strongly recommend that you hit the road if you have not done so yet.
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