Before he hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson drove all over the continental U.S. in a Chevy Chevette. He left us a record of his travels, The Lost Continent.
I just finished reading it, having nursed it like a finger of single-malt scotch–taking little sips over the course of a few months. Now that it’s over, I want him to start driving all over again.
Bryson had one traveling ritual that struck me as particularly dramatic. He would check into a motel for the night, take his little pair of scissors out of his kit bag, proceed to the bathroom, and ceremonially snip the Sanitized for Your Protection banner on the commode, exclaiming “I declare this toilet open!”
But his travel narrative includes poetry, too. One Sunday morning he was driving east through Wyoming…
I drove through the drizzle to Devil’s Tower, the mountain used by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the one on which the aliens landed. It is so singular and extraordinary that you cannot imagine what Spielberg would have used as an alternative if it hadn’t been available. You can see it long before you get to it, but as you draw nearer the scale of it becomes really quite awesome. It is a flat-topped cone of rock 865 feet high, soaring out of an otherwise flat and featureless plain. The scientific explanation is that it was a volcanic fluke–an outsized lump of warm rock that shot out of the earth and then cooled into its present arresting shape. In the moonlight it is said to glow, though even now on a wet Sunday morning with smoky clouds brushing across its summit, it looked decidedly supernatural, as if it were placed there eons ago for the eventual use of aliens.
Bryson drove for two months, thirty years ago–which is about when I got my driver’s license and dreamed of such adventures. I actually did do it myself, seven years ago, albeit for just two weeks. And I have an observation to make about the two ways you can drive across America, caressing God’s earth on our splendid, lonely highways. But first, Bryson’s experience of the Grand Canyon, and mine.
Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.
Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. It was such an unexpected sight–no one had told me that it would be on display–and it just took my breath away. There he was all still and silent, dusted with powder and dressed in a suit. I particularly remember that he had his glasses on (what did they think he was going to do with those where he ws going?) and that they were crooked. I think my grandmother had knocked them askew during her last blubbery embrace and then everyone else had been squeamish to push them back into place. It was a shock to me to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over “I Love Lucy” or repair his car or talk with his mouth full. It was awesome. But not really as awesome as the Grand Canyon.
Your humble scribe, on the same subject, in a journal I kept:
God, of course, is free to do as He wills. It is pointless to ask why. Why would He hollow out an enormous scoop of His earth, delving a mile deep into a plateau in the shape of a 200-mile capital J? Why would He make most of the world in one way, and this part in another?
You can stand on Bright Angel promontory and look out over a red, yellow, and brown expanse beneath you that is so great that everything you ever knew of the earth before could fit inside it. And it would look small. My beloved St. Peter’s Basilica, a climate unto itself: small. Old Rag Mountain, my favorite long hike of youth: small. Empire State Building, Sears Tower: little sticks.
Forget it. Manhattan Island could fit into one of the tributary canyons here. These comparisons are not a reasonable exercise. The Grand Canyon is simply a different realm of creation. It is the place where creation occurred, according to the natives, which would put the canyon itself outside the confines of the created, on the divine side of the unbridgeable divide. You can see why they would say this.
I had driven a great distance; it had taken me a week. I had seen thousands of miles of the country, our greatest rivers, and some of our splendid cities. But it was all nothing, reduced to absurd tiny-ness.
I had lived two score years. Nothing. I had seen many days in my life, many sweet evenings. Nothing. Nothing. Tiny. Ridiculously small. Who can even countenance such pettiness, trifles like the George Washington Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls? Leave it all alone; these are just miniscule particles of dust.
It really is true: Looking at the Grand Canyon is a cruel blow to oneself. Every earthly thing is reduced to the size of plankton. It is no wonder that people routinely ignore all warnings and railings and wind up falling to their deaths trying to get just the right photograph. To see the canyon is a kind of death. ‘If this thing is real, then everything else I have ever seen or done is a tiddly wink being flipped into a little plastic cup. What have I been bothering about all this time?’
So I think Bryson and I had some similar experiences. But there are two ways of driving across America. Allow me to illustrate this with another citation, from a current periodical publication.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960’s and 70’s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.
Thus concludes Peter Beinart’s brief analysis in The Atlantic of how the decline in white American churchgoing has affected politics. He quotes a Notre Dame sociologist: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Beinart goes on to observe:
The most-committed members of a church are more likely than those casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.
I think we unworthy “more-committed members” might offer an explanation for this, an explanation that a sociologist would consider outside his ken. Namely: When we receive the sacraments of the Church regularly, God’s grace fills our hearts. In other words, if we sinners who frequent church have any real love in us, there’s a genuinely supernatural explanation. Not having to do with aliens. But having to do with Christ. He reigns above, and He pours the love of His Heart into ours, through the rites of the Church.
On my cross-country drive, when I crossed the Mississippi River in my little 2006 Toyota, I made landfall at the enormous arch that marks the gateway to the West. I stopped in the original cathedral of Saint Louis, which stands on the riverbank, hard-by the Arch. I made a little visit to the Blessed Sacrament and said some prayers.
In his drive, Bryson found communion with his own childhood, and with his fellowman, in souvenir shops and diners. But his elegy of the American road, funny as it manages to be sometimes, winds up sounding a note of melancholy and loneliness.
The other way to drive across America is from tabernacle to tabernacle, from humble parish Mass to humble parish Mass, giving God the glory for making you, not a solitary wayfarer on the great ocean of existence, but a member of the Body of Christ.