Observing America

This blog entry about the events of Sunday, July 03, 2011 was originally posted on July 20, 2011.

PART 16 (DAYS 18-19):  America, the beautiful.  It’s more than just a patriotic song; after all that Cheryl and I had seen during our cross country road trip in just a little over two weeks — which is still just a fraction of what the USA has to offer — I totally got it.  Confirmed: bureaucratic and commercial matters aside, this country is indeed beautiful — the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountain majesties above fruited plains — from sea to shining sea.  Also, the red rock deserts that the song pays no attention to are pretty beautiful too.

It was perfectly fitting that we ended our self-discovery of American patriotism on the Fourth of July — the day Americans observe the anniversary of their independence — although it wasn’t exactly coincidental because we had planned it that way.  The patriotism wasn’t planned though; we did in fact feel a little bit more connected to the country we call home, despite the occasional complaints that every American intrinsically has about living here.  Perhaps it was contrived that we filled our day with American customs, but it’s not like I haven’t aimed to do as the locals do in the foreign countries I’ve traveled to.

The American customs started that morning, right on television.  “Ha, we were just there,” I said, watching ESPN broadcasting live from where our road trip began in Coney Island, Brooklyn, at the annual Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.  Defending champion Joey Chestnut won the official contest with a non-record-breaking amount of 62 hot dogs in ten minutes — only to be bested by my favorite former champion Takeru Kobayashi, who had been banned from the contest for contract reasons, but ended up setting a new world record of 69 hot dogs at an untelevised event in Manhattan.

The world-renowned Japanese hot dog-eating guy may have been a little pompous for staging such an unofficial albeit record-keeping stunt, but it’s the Americans who are pompous about other spectator sports, particularly the American pastime of baseball (coincidentally a sport that the Japanese also embrace).  I mean, who else but the Americans have the gall to take a sport and elevate it to something called the “World Series” — while excluding every country in the world other than one other than its own to participate in?  (And that exception is Canada, which doesn’t even really count!)

Alas, that is the American way, and the way we went that July day when finishing off our journey in San Francisco — where Kerouac & Co. did back in the day — by going to a San Francisco Giants baseball game.  Cheryl, Andy and I took BART from Pleasanton into San Francisco proper, where we first briefly meandered around vendors outside and inside the Ferry Building before walking down the Embarcadero along the bayside.  One of the most iconic images of San Francisco may be the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting the San Francisco peninsula and Marin County, but it was the Bay Bridge that graced its presence to us that day. 

“Everyone talks about the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Bay Bridge gets no love,” Andy explained to Cheryl — both of them engineers.  “As an engineering feat, look at it.  They had to build an island in the middle and connect it.”

“Tell that to Erik and he’ll put it in his blog,” she told him (so I could break the fourth wall now).  A nearby sign indicated that we had truly come to the end of the road; the Bay Bridge is where Interstate Highway I-80 ends, the road that started back in the east where we did in New Jersey.

“THIS IS THE MOST AMERICAN THING YOU CAN DO,” said a familiar face sitting next to me in the bleachers of AT&T Park (where you would think you would get decent AT&T wireless service, but don’t really).  “Baseball.  [Beer.]  Hot dogs.”  It was not a coincidence that it was my longtime traveling buddy Sam beside me (Antarctica, Moscow, Vancouver Games) because we had planned it that way.  With him was his friend Zach, who also lived in the city.  “You know what we should get [to make this more American]?” Sam suggested.  “Apple pie.”  However, the only sweet pastries available were churros, which I guess was passable since most of the MLB is Hispanic, right?

“Ask him if Americans made it,” I joked to Sam, who ordered some from a concession guy walking the stands.  “We don’t want it if Americans didn’t make it.”  (We had jokingly been pompous American capitalist pigs when we were in Moscow together.)

American patriotism came in full force — if not from the American flags we were waving, then from the U.S. Air Force above — when two fighter jets came swooping over the baseball stadium after a U.S. military officer sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to an enthusiastic crowd.  “That was fucking dope!!!” cheered a fan next to us when we went on a pre-first-inning beer and food run.  “This is going to be a good game!”  The fan high-fived the people around him — including Sam — and the all-American game began.

Baseball is democracy in action; In it all men are “free and equal,” regardless of race, nationality or creed.  Every man is given the rightful opportunity to rise to the top on his own merits… It is the fullest expression of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly in our national life. -Francis Trevelyan Miller

The 2010 “World” Series Champion San Francisco Giants played nine innings against the visiting San Diego Padres that Fourth of July, in a great game filled with cheers, jeers, and chants (“Let’s go Gi-ants!”) all around the stands — but more importantly was the beer and concessions (including nachos and two types of crab sandwiches!).  Home runner hits that went out of the park were met by waiting kayakers, who fought for balls and bragging rights.  In the end, the Giants lost, but at least I wasn’t without good company.

Good times continued in post game festivities, which included a couple of bars, beers, and bus rides.  We eventually found ourselves in North Beach, the Italian and former beatnik enclave near the Fisherman’s Wharf, just in time to see the fireworks from Pier 41 on what I was informed was one of the clearest Fourth of Julys in San Francisco history.  The “fires” weren’t close enough though; the temperature had dropped significantly by the wharf, so much that I had to buy a cheesy fleece.  (The different micro-climates of the geologically diverse bay area have temperatures spanning a range of twenty degrees, often between two towns that aren’t even too far away from each other.)

As soon as the sky went dark, it was lit up by the fireworks show — two shows actually from our vantage point, which were actually mirror images of each other with the same visuals coming up roughly in sync.  And at some point during our moment on the pier, the ultimate yet awesomely pompous chants of American patriotism began, under the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air:

“U! S! A!... U! S! A!... U! S! A!...”

* * * * *

“IT’S GOING TO BE WEIRD GOING BACK TO NEW YORK after all this,” I’d said to Cheryl when were driving through the vast red rock landscapes of Utah’s Canyonlands.  “All this open space.”

“Well it could be nice,” she’d told me.  “You could get a bagel whenever you want.”  She’d reminded me that once we got to her new home in the San Francisco bay area, we could probably get bagels — it would be a nice way to acclimatize for a couple of days before going home. 

And with that said, we went out for bagels that Tuesday after Independence Day, when it was just the two of us again since all our friends and significant other were back at work.  “Not bad,” was Cheryl’s analysis of the local bagel shop, conveniently within walking distance. 

For the rest of our time together, Cheryl and I did a lot of nothing by the complex’s pool — something we welcomed.  No tents, no campstoves, no threat of bears or Books of Mormon.  (Scrabble and Words With Friends remained though.)  This was our acclimation period back to civilization, our attempt at a return to normalcy.  Setting foot into the vast landscape of a Safeway supermarket both new to us was a novelty that would soon pass over time.  For Cheryl, it would be a redefinition of normal, now that she was a Californian — although for old time’s sake, we made a pasta puttanesca (with fresher ingredients). 

Later that evening, Andy and Cheryl dropped me off at the San Francisco International airport.  With me was my luggage, including a bag filled with all my camping supplies that would eventually see the light of day again, hopefully on an adventure as grand as the American one that had just ended.

“Thanks for everything!” Cheryl wished me, giving me a big hug — one representative of decades of our friendship.

“Well,” I said deadpan.  “Have a nice life here.” 

The car pulled away, and I went to go board the red-eye flight to get back to Brooklyn where it all began.

Next time, Yosemite  ; - ) I texted her.

: - )

AFTER DRIVING 5,042 MILES across fifteen states, four time zones, and only getting pulled over by cops twice, another Global Trip journey had come to an end — this one different from most others because it happened on my home turf, a land I know — or thought I knew.  The United States of America is a big country after all, the realized vision of political and religious refugees who had come over from Europe, and had spread that spirit of openness and freedom with a welcome invitation to receive “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  It is the U.S.A.‘s sheer size that makes it unique from other countries in the world, with so many different subcultures and landscapes within its borders: New England, southern California, Cajun country, the South, the SouthWest, the Pac Northwest, Texas — hell, different neighborhoods within Miami and New York have many subcultures.  And when you explore these different areas, you do feel like you’re traveling to a foreign place — foreign from everything you know in your day-to-day routine at home — although with the convenience of everyone speaking English.  Ultimately, isn’t that what travel should be about?  Going beyond what you know and hearing out or experiencing someone else’s story, regardless of their cultural, political, or religious views, or where they are from in the world — U.S. or abroad? 

After this trip, I sort of get why a huge majority of Americans don’t have passports; there is plenty to do and see right here — too much for one’s lifetime it seems.  Generally speaking, I also understand why Middle America is (and votes) the way they do; life in the middle is a lot different than it is on the coasts, and they are merely expressing what they know, and living the only way they know how to live.  Sure, it would be nice if a lot of them could be less provincial and see beyond their bubble to perceive what we people on the coasts do, but I now believe that the coasts should reciprocate that idea and at least see and experience what “the other half” does.  You don’t have to agree, but you should at least see where they are coming from.  And while in the process, you’ll be dazzled by the most amazing scenery and wildlife this country has to offer.

All in all, traveling through America — from sea to shining sea — has been both exhilarating as it has been educational.  However, it is just one country though, and you should definitely get a passport if you don’t already have one.  There is beauty to behold, and experiences to be had all around the world, but it’s nice to know that as an American, coming home ain’t half bad either.


Next entry: Getting Ready for the African Rainforest

Previous entry: Manifest Destiny

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Comments for “Observing America”

  • Tada!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  01:05 PM

  • Hey, I’m from the middle of America and I’ve been to 28 countries!  Sad the blog is over, Erik!  You’ll be ready for another trip in a few months, right? I hope?

    Posted by sara  on  07/20  at  04:55 PM

  • SARA:  I added the phrase, “Generally speaking…” just for you. wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  05:20 PM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: From Sea to Shining Sea," which chronicled a two-and-a-half-week road trip across the U.S.A., from New York to San Francisco, visiting several American national parks and monuments along the way.

Next entry:
Getting Ready for the African Rainforest

Previous entry:
Manifest Destiny


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