Driving a rented Chevy Malibu 2,600 miles through three Western states and five national parks last month on a family vacation can't yield a scientific survey of the mood of America. But when you're a news editor usually desk-bound in Boston, it provides a fresh, feet-on-the-ground look at a spectacular part of your country – and a couple of surprises.
But there was something surprisingly comfortingly in the US West too. Americans were out enjoying their land and its open roads. They were seeing its beauty from SUVs, motorcycles, and three-wheelers, from the "family chariot" (as one Monitor auto reviewer used to call his car) to RVs, many with a big "Rent Me!" sign on the side which also served as a reminder that it might be wise to keep a respectful distance from a driver who isn't used to wrangling such a behemoth.
Partisan political anger, oil spills, Iraq and Afghanistan didn't seem to have room on the agenda of people we met. Only one expressed concern that we might skip Arizona because of the immigration law there. (We hadn't actually given it a thought and were already committed.)
I made a conscious decision not to take along a laptop or smart phone, even knowing that a thousand or so emails would await me on my return. Yes, there was plenty of evidence that others had brought their screens with them. But at least they were acknowledging that the "real" world still needs to be explored in person, along with the virtual worlds online.
For me, it was time for family and gaining fresh views, literally and figuratively. My wife and I were more than once left speechless by the beauty around us, reduced to saying "we're not in Boston anymore." We named the female voice on our GPS device "Dorothy," because she led us through this Oz.
Geologists can tell you how Bryce Canyon got its "hoodoos" – elegant pillars of red sandstone – or how the wonders of the stone bridges of Arches National Park were shaped over millions of years by nature, not man. The human eye and mind tries to comprehend but fails: Have we left our planet? Is this, too, the terra firma on which we live?
Even President Obama, who could have made a politically expedient decision by vacationing on the troubled Gulf Coast, couldn't resist a mid-summer respite at a national park, biking and hiking Acadia National Park on the rugged coast of Maine. There enlightened philanthropists, led by the Rockefeller family, have turned what was once their private playgrounds into a national treasure shared by ordinary folks.
Our biggest surprise: how many people have traveled much farther than us to enjoy our national parks and other scenic wonders. Walk along the rim of the Grand Canyon on a busy day and you can expect to hear many languages being spoken, often unrecognizable. ("That's not Russian. Maybe Polish or some other Slavic tongue?")
Some stand out in tour groups, but most are indistinguishable from Americans until mouths open and nonEnglish sounds emerge. One realizes with some national pride what Americans have achieved in saving these marvels not just for ourselves but for all mankind to share.