I received an irresistible request from a German reader to describe my country.
All countries vary greatly on many levels, but the sheer size and diversity of America—geographical, educational, occupational, racial, attitudinal, political, religious, climatological, geological, zoological, botanical—makes it unique. How could I possibly condense down into anything less than a lengthy book the many different characteristics of a country as large and multifaceted as America?
And yet… And yet I love this country deeply, for reasons almost as multitudinous and almost as varied as America itself, so I will try for a thumbnail.
If my German reader or anyone else from any other country wants to visit America, I would point out that all of America’s major cities, and even many of its smaller cities, have excellent museums, some of which qualify as world-class. Most cities still have at least some examples of the regional architecture that once characterized urban life in America, and all are well worth visiting. But no city is America, anymore than Paris is France, or Madrid is Spain, or Buenos Aires is Argentina, or Cape Town is South Africa. All America’s cities put together are not America. If you want to get a feel for my country, you have to go to other places.
You should certainly go to as many of the magnificent and uniquely American landmarks as possible, to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion and Capitol Reef, the extraordinary Western coastline, from San Diego to the Olympic Peninsula and on to Alaska, Key West and the rugged Maine Coast, the deeply wooded and aptly named Great Lakes, the vast and wide-open Great Plains, and a thousand other breathtaking sites. But those aren’t America either.
If you really want to see America, go to the small towns in rural areas where every residential neighborhood has flags flying every day of the year and on certain holidays (the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, President’s Day) there are more Stars and Stripes snapping in the breeze than anyone who hasn’t seen it could even imagine, the small-town America where men gather at their local restaurant to have breakfast and solve the problems of the world, the small towns where you will be noticed immediately because you’re not a resident, but where you will be greeted and treated with courtesy and respect and given whatever help you need or want. If you try to speak English, no matter how badly you mangle it, you’ll win hearts.
My parents had their retirement home in the lovely Green Mountains of Vermont, the northern New England landscape my sister once accurately described as epitomizing the harmony of man and nature. It was in a tiny village on a ridge where the landscape rolled away to west and south so that on the clear days of summer and autumn it was possible to see great distances that lured a restless heart like mine to ramble on indefinitely.
A local farmer grew his hay on a ten-acre pasture just behind the house. I had come home from college with a friend and my collie to visit, and we went for a long walk through the woods on the other side of the pasture, waving to the farmer who was turning his mown hay to dry before baling. He waved back with the lazy raising of his arm common to country folk around the world, and we went on.
A few days later, as we ate lunch, he knocked on the front door. His hay was perfectly cured for baling, but a storm was due in and he and his fourteen-year-old son would never be able to get it all baled, transported back to the barn, and stored in time to save it. Would we—my friend and I—be willing to help him out?
Of course. We thought it a grand adventure and went out immediately, climbing over the back fence and into the pasture. The air was sparkling, and the sun was hot, but there was something—I couldn’t have identified it precisely—that hinted at a change coming. We went to work.
His baler was hooked up to one tractor and his son drove another behind, slightly off to one side, with a flatbed hooked to it. My friend and I walked beside the flatbed and loaded the bales as they slid out of the chute. When the boy judged the weight close to maxing out his little tractor’s capacity, we all, including the farmer, would climb on board, ride back to the farm, and my friend and I would unload the bales onto a conveyor while the farmer and his son stored them in the loft above.
The first two or three loads were fun, but then it gradually evolved into something awfully like work. Late summer days in the north are long, and towards the end, around nine o’clock, as the sun set behind the distant mountains that roll away to the Great Lakes and the Great Plains and on to the then unknown—by me—Western mountains and the Pacific, it was only competition with my friend and stubborn pride that kept me going.
It was barely light enough to see when we set the last bale on the conveyor, and as we turned to walk home, my friend and I, the farmer’s wife stepped out of their little house and said, in the tones used by every mother to her son around the globe, “You boys come in here right now.”
We walked in. The kitchen table was set with a feast that impoverished every Thanksgiving dinner I have ever seen: a roast beef that would have required grappling hooks to climb; bowls the size of wash basins mounded with vegetables and potatoes; biscuits still steaming out of the oven; and two home-made-from-scratch pies one of which, the apple one, I can still taste to this day and that I have never been able to find the equal of anywhere.
That lady had spent the day, as many hours in her kitchen as we had spent in that pasture, working to prepare a completely unnecessary but gratefully devoured feast as a thank-you for a simple favor.
Over two-thousand miles west, in Colorado, six of us rented an isolated log cabin in a valley next to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was a landlocked valley packed with mule deer and elk, and since the only access was through a large private ranch, we had the place to ourselves.
Every morning, in the dark, we would all jam ourselves into my four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco and I would ferry us up to the higher elevations where the deer were. At night, I would drive us all down again, tired and happy, and we would fill the cabin with our lies and laughter about that day’s adventures. Four were old friends. Two were new to me, including a Missourian named Hal.
One evening, as the valley filled with the night’s black cold and we got our rifles and gear out of the back, I glanced down and saw one of my tires was almost flat. By the time we had our things out and stored in the cabin, it was completely flat. I groaned inwardly at the thought of changing it in the cold by lantern and flashlight, but before I could do anything about it, we all went in to eat.
The lady we had hired to cook for us was an atrocious chef, but when you’re that tired, anything that doesn’t bite you first tastes wonderful and we lingered over mystery meat and mushy vegetables, making them more palatable with copious amounts of beer and bourbon. People got up to get seconds (beer) or to use the outhouse, so I wasn’t really paying attention, but when I went out to change my tire, the spare was already on it. The Missourian named Hal, rightly judging me as barely competent with the most rudimentary tools, had quietly changed my tire for me.
A thousand miles east and a decade later, in the gently undulating farmland of Missouri, I took my oldest son, then eleven or twelve, to hunt with the Missourian named Hal, who had become a good and respected friend. I had pulled my boy out of school, arguing that he would learn at least as much in a duck blind with me and Hal and my grand old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Max, as he would frittering his time away with fractions and long division. I believe I sold the deal by telling the school I would have him write a paper about migratory waterfowl.
I was living in New Hampshire in those days, and I noticed as we drove across country that he seemed quieter than normal, but I put it down to the excitement of his first real hunt. Both my sons had gone bird hunting with me before, as spectators, but Missouri has a youth hunter program and under our supervision, Hal’s and mine, he would be able to try his skills—or as I call it, given my lack of shooting ability, his dumb luck—with a shotgun for the first time.
But by the time we drove down through the rich black earth of the Heartland—the richest farmland this side of the valley Nile—the wooded knolls and gullies that hide some of the greatest numbers of whitetail deer anywhere in America, and the small, old-fashioned towns with their late-Victorian brick stores and restaurants where farmers and small businessmen gather for breakfast after the morning’s chores are done, he was well and truly sick.
The doctor in Hal’s hometown pronounced it to be tonsillitis, but not the sort of thing that justified pulling his tonsils out. He advised bedrest and told me I would be doing my son no favors if I tried to turn around and drive home.
I told Hal and his wife Terri I would check into a motel. They wouldn’t hear of it. Jamie and I were installed in their guestroom, their son Seth was pulled out of school to stay home and play video games with the patient, and Terri told me to get out of her hair and let her care for a sick boy, which she knew how to do far better than any ne’er-do-well duck hunter.
The hunting that year was excellent, and Max performed one of the most extraordinary retrieves of his extraordinary life and Jamie had one of the best vacations he ever had. I forget what I got him to write for his school.
Drop down thirteen-hundred miles. I met my sister and brother-in-law at the Grand Canyon. I had only been to the less-visited north rim and that many years ago, so I was a little shocked to see how crowded and commercialized it was, with tour buses and restaurants and hotels and gift shops, but even with all that it is still truly, uniquely, magnificently, dizzyingly, one of the seven wonders of the world, dropping away at one’s feet in a way so precipitous and so great and so spectacular that it is impossible to describe. The northern Arizona air is crystalline, a clarity visitors, especially those from other, more humid states or countries, cannot imagine without seeing, and it distorts one’s sense of distance, so it is hard to realize that looking down the canyon is over a mile deep, and looking across it is roughly fifteen miles to the other side. Nor are there many places in the world where there are so many different shades and hues of red rock, as if it had been painted by Hans Hofman or Morris Louis.
But while we were there, I noticed that for some reason many of the tourists that day were Middle Eastern. Most were dressed in indistinguishable Americanized clothes, but they spoke a foreign tongue and looked like older versions of some of the boys I went to school with in Switzerland over half a century ago, faces like those seen these days in tragic news broadcasts from troubled parts of the world. A few were dressed at least partially in clothes that clearly stamped them as coming from somewhere in the Levant. One man, who was wearing what I believe is called a kufi, kept staring at me and speaking to another man by his side. Finally, the other man approached me.
“Mister,” he said in heavily accented English, “if you please. My brother is here visiting in America for the first time and would like much to have his photograph with you.”
I loathe being photographed, but I realized that to the brother, seeing a man in iconic Western American jeans and cowboy boots and Stetson, at the Grand Canyon, must have seemed like something right out of a classic John Ford film, as if I were a sort of elderly, busted-up version of the movie cowboys seen around the world. I posed with him and after the photograph was taken, I put my hand on his shoulder and said to the other, “Please tell your brother I hope he enjoys his visit and has a great time.”
The brother translated and the man in the kufi shook my hand, bowing solemnly, with great courtesy, and we went our separate ways.
Fifteen-hundred miles away, on the other side of the continent in Mississippi, the land is as softly lush and flat as Arizona is ruggedly harsh and vertical, and the moist heavy air restricts one’s vision almost as much as the heavy stands of timber on the far side of one of the South’s many vast ploughed fields. I was there to film Labrador retrievers at work on a duck hunt, but I overheard one of the workers at the lodge talking about a cousin who was going coon hunting that night and I thought it would be fun to film coon hounds at work.
I noticed the owners of the lodge and the well-heeled Yankee hunters sort of snickering at the idea of my going out all night coon hunting with a bunch of uncouth rednecks, and I have to admit the men who showed up that evening were as rough-looking a bunch as I’ve ever encountered, tattered coveralls and filthy baseball caps and the scarred and scabbed hands and blackened fingernails of men who do hard manual labor all day long. They could have come from Central Casting for a remake of some dark, southern-Gothic horror film, but they were polite and gracious, and when we let the hounds out in a pitch-black swampy area, I marveled at how they could tell exactly what each individual hound was doing, half a mile or more away in the night, just by the sound of each dog’s baying.
“That’ll be Lucy. She’s on a coon, but she’s in the water now.”
“That’s Red over thataway, but he’s on trash, sounds like a possum.” A statement that implied Red had different vocalizations for different species of game.
“Sam’s hot! Yep, he’s treed a coon! Let’s go.”
They were knowledgeable, they loved their dogs, and they thought only two hours of sleep before a hard day of work a small price to pay for the joy of working their hounds.
And later, when we drove to a different area, leaving one man behind because his dog had not yet returned, we came across a car broken down by the side of the road with a black lady standing by the driver’s side door. When she saw us stop and get out, four pickup trucks with a dozen very rough-looking white men, her eyes grew huge.
They asked her to open the hood and the men dove in with flashlights and tools, trying this and that, tinkering with (to me) mysterious portions of the car’s anatomy, but it was impossible to diagnose what the problem was. She told us she had called her husband, but he hadn’t gotten there yet. One of the men addressed the rest of us, particularly me.
“Y’all go on and I’ll wait here, make sure this lady’s safe till her husband gets here, then I’ll come along directly. If that’s all right with you, Mr. Jameson.”
That is America.
In Iowa, on the banks of the muddy, mighty, magnificent Mississippi, the great river that flows for over 2300 miles, the river about which Mark Twain wrote with such affection, inspiring generations of boys like me to dream of impossible adventures, the river that rightly commands both caution and respect, I hunted canvasback with some gentlemen from Ducks Unlimited. It was a grey and lowering day and the hunting was good, but the shooting was fast and difficult, and it took us awhile to get our limits. That afternoon we drove back to a little nearby town, still in our muddy hunting gear, and stopped at the sole bar on Main Street, the sole bar in that little town, as far as I could tell, for a celebratory brew, but the bar was closed. Through the front windows we could see some really fine trophies on the wall: whitetail, mule deer, elk, pronghorn. We were all clustered around with our noses pressed to the glass, our hands cupping our faces to cut the glare, when a man’s voice called out.
“Hey! What do you guys think you’re doing?”
We told him we hoping to get beer.
“I don’t open till five.” But he didn’t drive off. He sat in his truck looking us over, then abruptly turned off the engine and got out.
“Here. Come on in. I have to go take some groceries to friend who’s sick, but I’ll be back in about an hour. In the meantime, here you go.”
He set glasses and pitchers of some local beer on the bar, went back out and drove off. He left five total strangers alone in his bar with his amiable Labrador and a brand-new-in-the-box semi-auto Remington shotgun he was raffling off to raise money for a disabled vet. I suspect that if we had opened the cash register, we would have found money in there.
That is America.
I still feel a rush of pride every time I see the Stars and Stripes. I still tear-up every time I hear our national anthem well sung. (When it’s badly sung I’ve been known to tear-up too, but that’s different.) And I still feel a sense of awe and gratitude whenever I see any branch of our military, meticulous and immaculate in their dress uniforms.
That too is America