Reading Gemma’s post about a European’s impression of the US, I immediately thought of Jean Baudrillard’s book “America.” Here are some gems from my well-underlined, college copy:
“This (The United States) is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naïve: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of the ‘just as it is’.”
“America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.”
Some facts about my childhood within this hyperreality:
I grew up on a farm on the flattest stretch of I-70 in rural Kansas.
We waved to everyone we passed on the highway driving home.
Teenagers would regularly “drag Main” as entertainment.
You could count the number of stoplights in town.
My graduating class had 70 people in it.
Our school mascot was the Cowboys.
Main Street was made of bricks.
I was homecoming queen.
My dad was a minister.
If you’re starting to visualize “Footloose” at this point, it would not be far off. We did have parties in large barns, but no one did gymnastic routines (that I know of).
(Oh the drinking and driving and teenage smoking that was such a part of every small-town kid’s childhood.)
Like Ren, my main goal as a teenager was to get the hell outta Dodge. Once I got out my main goal was to get my mom out. This became a reality in September of 2001 when she needed to move to Arizona to take care of her ailing mother. My sister and I came home for a week to help her pack. Then September 11 happened. We watched it on TV in a living room filled with moving boxes.
As we watched the second tower fall, my sister whispered: “This stuff happens every day in other countries.” As much as I hated her for saying it in the moment, I knew what she meant. The “brutal naïveté” of which Baudrillard wrote in 1986 was still going strong in 2001. And when it was shattered, we each had to define where we belonged in this new country, new national identity, new military machine in which we found ourselves. Leaving the farm two days later with the packed U-Haul felt like the embodiment of that new search for place.
My flight home was cancelled and in order to make it back to California to perform in a show, my aunt agreed to meet me in Arizona and drive me the rest of the way back. My sister and mom would take a more leisurely pace to Arizona with the U-haul, while I hauled ass in my mom’s car to meet my aunt in Arizona and race back to California.
These kinds of hell-bent, cross-country freeway journeys are when you viscerally understand the American utopia, regardless of whether it is achieved or not, regardless of whether a national disaster looms in the rear-view mirror. Seeing the road converge on the perspective point in the plains, dodging elk on mountain roads, watching the sunrise in the desert turn the hills purple, descending into the coastal fog: all of this can happen in one caffeine-fueled drive here.
I’m not sure if 9/11 is the whole reason I’m obsessed with the idea of “returning to my roots,” but I know it has something to do with it. Having lived all of my adult life on the coasts, I keep thinking if I can find some sense of a pristine/untouched/old-world America that still exists, I’ll know where I belong. For the last two summers I’ve traveled cross-country (first by truck, then on Amtrak) looking for this “Americana.” Camping (when my nerves would allow it), staying with friends and family, trying my hardest to take the smallest roads through the smallest towns, I searched for something that felt like home, even as my license plates, pink hair and oppressive shyness signaled I was a stranger.
(At this point, I always start feeling like I’m just having a case of the glory days. And who needs any reason to watch a young Bruce smolder about the days gone by?)
I didn’t find some ethereal hearth to call my own on those trips, but what I rediscovered was the familiarity of the landscape. If the minute I pulled into a town I felt alien, the minute I pulled back onto the road, I felt at home: long stretches of uninterrupted sky, a road that will go on forever if you want it to. And bathrooms placed at perfectly timed intervals. Maybe that’s all the utopia-slash-home a person needs…?