Highlights Across America
Filling in the awkward silence of offices, malls, and elevators is a kind of musical vapor that offers little to grasp and nothing to feel. Gospel music – especially black gospel -- is quite different. With its spiritual message and depth of emotion, gospel is meant to be felt and heard because its sole purpose is to fill your soul. Listen to a good gospel choir and you’ll feel it.
It wasn’t enough that their land was taken away. When it came to subduing the American Indian, the American government was also driven to steal their language, lifestyle, music, customs, and beliefs. Although the theft of their culture tamped down their pride, when you attend a Pow Wow you’ll see that ember of pride ignite into an inferno.
If the average person were handed an armload of fabric scraps, they’d probably look for an average trashcan. This is where quilters prove they are above average. Combining nimble fingers, flying needles, keen eyesight, and a creative eye, at an old-fashioned quilting bee participants turn those scraps into a traditional work of American art.
When someone wants to brag about something that’s not exactly the first or best or biggest thing in the nation, they can qualify it by saying that at least it’s the first or best or biggest thing “(east or west) of the Mississippi.” The Mississippi River is the nation’s natural dividing line, but it’s much more than that. Far more.
Is a Lumberjack Contest exciting? Well, even when a lumberjack is featured on a roll of paper towels, they already seem larger than life. Wait’ll you watch ‘em blasting chunks of wood out of a log or scurrying up a perfectly vertical tree and you’d swear you’re watching Superman.
Nearly every schoolkid knows that as the nation was being built, the Founding Fathers had narrowed the choice of our national bird down to two contestants: the wild turkey and the bald eagle.
Despite getting nearly everything right Benjamin Franklin got this one wrong. He lobbied for the turkey but in the end the vote, rightfully, went to the bald eagle. Whether it’s perched on the arm of a handler or, better yet, flying completely free in a wide-open sky, their dignity, power, and presence is a soaring reflection of America.
Only a relative handful have ever traveled the entire distance of the Appalachian Trail. But even if you have no plan to embark on an epic journey from Maine to Georgia (or vice versa), at least set off on a short walk. Step by step through its colorful range of ranges (White Mountains, Green Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains) you’ll get a glimpse of America’s majesty. Go the distance and you’ll see 2,176 miles of it.
I’m not a doctor anymore, but if I had to prescribe an antidote for depression I’d recommend that my patients dance a polka. Polka is the bipolar opposite of the blues. Even though they contain the same exact eight notes found in every song from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, polka tunes manage to put them into an order that creates just about the happiest melodies on earth. Magnifying the ebullience of the songs are the musicians who seem as happy and jovial as the audience.
Maybe it’s something in the kielbasa.
It’s basic, sometimes brutal, but always impressive. No matter how many times you go to a rodeo and watch a cowboy latch onto a buckin’ bronco or see one leap off his horse to wrestle a steer to the ground, you know you’re getting your 100 percent recommended daily allowance of adrenaline.
If you were living in the 1850s and somehow had the ability to travel to the present, you’d be hard pressed to comprehend the changes that had taken place in fashion, transportation, technology, and architecture. If someone took you to a square dance, though, you’d feel right at home.
A band can feature guitars, an upright bass, banjo, and a fiddle and what you’d hear would sound like country music. Add a mandolin and what you’ve got is bluegrass. The subtle difference makes a big difference because the sound captures the feel of rural America in general and Kentucky in particular. When virtuoso pickers go flat out with crisp, bullet-fast notes and seamless harmonies, it’s as pure and clear as a cold Kentucky stream.
Of sports that convey the essence of Zen, surfing may top the list. Or tetherball. Maybe its appeal is its simplicity. All you need is a surfboard and a wave to enjoy a pastime that's part sport, part recreation, and totally natural. Totally.
There are waves breaking along coastlines around the continental United States, but to reach the beach whose history is attached to surfing, you'll have to head about 2,500 miles off the west coast and rip the curl on the shores of Hawaii.
In the early 1800s, nearly the entire western half of the continent was shrouded in mystery. Its geography, geology, waterways, wildlife, and ways of life were completely foreign to America’s white population. After traveling for more than two years, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from our farthest shores with answers to those puzzles and something incredible: a road map to the nation’s destiny.
At a barbershop quartet concert I recall one of the performers slipping in a note of encouragement. “If you can sing ‘Happy Birthday’,” he said, “then you can sing barbershop.”
Well, that leaves me out. But for anyone who’s mastered the tune, there are thousands of like-minded people who would love to harmonize with you. Why not? The American-born style of barbershop embodies the pure joy of singing and brings to mind an era when folks frolicked on the shores of Coney Island, rode bicycles built for two, and enjoyed country drives in their merry Oldsmobiles.
We’re so accustomed to driving cars that most of us have forgotten the thrill of riding the rails. When you’re on a train you’re exploring with complete freedom. Freedom from reading maps, freedom from buying gas, and the freedom to knock out the miles as you sleep. And as you ride, outside the scenery rolls past like a life-sized American documentary.
What I like about state fairs is that they’re consistent. There are always ferris wheels and funhouses, livestock competitions and baking contests, and concession stands filled with cotton candy, funnel cakes, ice cream, and lemonade that projects a purely American kind of nostalgia and comfort.
Growing up in Florida, I loved it when I could step outside and experience the beauty of fall foliage. This would usually happen the following spring.
In other places, the schedule’s traditionally around late September and into mid-October. While the miracle of fall foliage takes place in North Carolina, Alabama, the Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, and nearly anywhere there are trees, New England is the region most closely associated with this spectacular. Come here and you’ll see the brilliance of millions of acres of forests and hillsides presenting one of nature’s most remarkably vivid beauty pageants.
Inclusion, not division, are the basis of a strong national foundation. Ready to offer our nation their best are thousands of foreign-born citizens who share a common goal: becoming American citizens. Applicants, many of whom risked everything to reach this country, literally renounce their homeland and pledge their allegiance to America. If your faith in this nation ever wavers, attend a naturalization ceremony. Afterward you'll be inspired to make America worthy of people like this.
I bet you didn’t know that the United States has a national pie council, but it does. The American Pie Council is committed to “preserving America’s pie heritage and promoting American's love affair with pies.” They also “raise awareness, enjoyment, and consumption of pies” by encouraging folks like you to buy a pie, bake a pie, or attend a pie-baking contest at a county or state fair. Yes, this is a good thing.
About once an hour technicians come up with a new entertainment system which, like grandfather clockwork, makes your old one obsolete. Even though drive-in theatres have been supplanted by nearly every technology available, including pencil sharpeners and shadow puppets, there’s something uniquely American about pulling into a large field lorded over by a huge sheet of white and knowing that you’re upholding a tradition that’s been around since the 1930s.
If you only visit your corner gas station to fill up, grab a snack, and go, the next time you hit the road, take a detour. Pull up beside the big rigs at a truck stop, hang out with your fellow travelers, and feast on the hearty foods that fuel the drivers.
Most of us lose track how large America really is because we can cross it from coast to coast in about six hours. If you want to avoid America, take a plane. But if you have a desire to see it – really see it and understand it and appreciate the diversity that's invisible at 40,000 feet and 600 miles per hour - get in your car and go.
It takes a lot to brass to bill your presentation as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. But who could dispute the fact that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus deserves the title? They pack a month’s worth of entertainment into each three-hour performance.
“The circus awakens every sense in you,” a performer told me. “That’s why it’s timeless. When you watch the circus, it is a beautiful escape. You don’t think about the housing market or mortgages or bills. And then it’s over so quickly...”
The show is never really over. Once you see it, it will stay with you forever.
What’s loud, ugly, violent, and demands the cessation of any logical thought?
No, not the Jerry Springer Show.
It’s a Monster Truck Rally, and they’re a far sight more entertaining than anything on trash television. For several hours these rallies deliver 100-percent USDA entertainment as a motorcade of massive trucks thunder through the dirt and run roughshod over a pyramid of automobiles.
So when’s it coming to your town?
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!