We just made a 17-day trip across the U.S. to Alaska, driving from Bangor, Maine to Bellingham, Washington, then by ferry to Haines, Alaska.
It was a journey across a continent, through vast farmlands turned a lush brown by the recent passage of the tilling machines. Interstate highways.
Along the way, we visited friends and relatives and squeezed in a bit of sightseeing.
Margo and John, our sibling and in-laws, put us up for three nights in Minneapolis in their hip downtown loft.
In South Dakota, our home state, we dropped by to see Mount Rushmore and the four presidents enshrined there, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt. and Lincoln.
We climbed around in the Badlands…
…and re-visited the drama of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site. (Read my post here about The Man Who Saved the World during the Cold War.)
The Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming are sacred to people of the Great Sioux Nation who were forced from their land by the U.S., then defeated after the Battle of Little Bighorn. We visited the battlefield and walked the hills where Custer’s men made their last stand…
And where Sioux Nation now celebrates what was to be their last victory.
Further north, through undulating brown hills in each direction, we crossed Montana. A three-hour traffic backup in the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state let us know that we were approaching a major city. We spent the night at Roaring River B & B where we could hear the water flow.
One night in Seattle gave us a chance to visit with our niece, Molly and her wife, Allegra, who are converting their own vans so they can enjoy time on the road.
Our stay was marred by thieves who broke into our car and stole all of our clothes and jewelry. The thought of it still makes me ill.
Our old friends Jill and Alan helped us recover from this catastrophe with their warm hospitality in their new home in Port Townsend.
A dash to Bellingham, Washington then a long wait for a departure on the Alaska Marine Transportation ferry to Haines, Alaska.
For three days we wove through the Inner Passage, once a stronghold of Northwest Native American culture, always a lush haven for foliage and wildlife, including the white Spirit Bear.
From Haines we drove north through the spectacular heights of the Kluane Mountains, past Kluane Lake, where steam arose from below the earth’s surface. The ice is only now melting from the shores.
Finally, we descended into Alaska, our home for the next three months.
It’s impossible to get a fair view of a city in 14 hours, and that is my disclaimer. When we decided to stop for the night in Janesville, Wisconsin, I remembered that Paul Ryan hailed from there, but everything else was a blank. Industrial warehouses dotted the roadside and trucks rumbled by.
On a brief walk the next morning through sprawling housing developments, I kept my eyes open and found a few clues to the local culture and history.
I. DWINDLING DAIRYLAND
First, I came across a plaque on a rock at the edge of a tiny meadow and pond. It recorded the story of a couple who ran a farm there during much of the 1900s. The inscription evoked nostalgia for Wisconsin’s glory days as “America’s Dairyland.”
"In summer months, their dairy herd grazed in the woodlands beyond and every afternoon gathered at this pond to drink. Homes and streets have replaced the farm, but this park remnant preserves a special place, when, in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air.”
Behind me, a quiet neighborhood of houses spread out. Jarringly close, the Interstate created an inescapable wave of noise.
I thought of the words, “in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air” and could only regret that nature is so often subsumed by industry and progress.
But within the neighborhood I found activity: a man raking leaves on the second warm day of spring, young wives jogging, dogs chirping at every passer-by.
II. POLITICAL FISSURES
Outside one house, a sticker demanding the recall of conservative Governor Scott Walker reminded me of the harsh measures the governor had taken several years ago to strip state employees of their unions. I can see now that the high-stakes drama between union members and the governor should have been a bell weather of the ideological warfare now pushing our country to new extremes.
III. IMMIGRANT AMERICA
Before we left, I saw a different side of Janesville, a side that revealed the diversity of America’s heartland. I knew that Puritan New Englanders and German immigrants had settled the area and guessed that their descendants still predominate. Yet when I returned to our hotel, I found three or four women from India, one middle-aged and the others barely out of high school, cleaning the rooms. A grandfatherly man carried towels slowly, moving with a stiff gait. Two young men in tight t-shirts worked their smart phones.
They stood together in a group and I was certain they were a family and the hotel owners, their success another example of immigrants who are realizing a new life in America.
Check out a version of this essay on Medium.com
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.