Americas is so big
How big is America? Yes, the land mass of America is knowable, approximately 9.1 million square kilometers (CIA World Factbook, 2015), uff. Subtract Alaska and Hawaii and you still have an impressive land of depth and breadth. America is also so varied: from the sub-tropical wetlands and reefs of Florida, boreal forests of Vermont and Minnesota, high and low deserts of the Southwest, to the alpine tundra of the northern Rockies. How can such an array of geographies and biomes be one place?
In my lessons Monday and Tuesday at Langhaugsveien Vidergående Skole in Bergen, the students were exposed to the idea of different Americas. The topic was childhood poverty and my intention was, in part, for them to understand some of the regionalism that exists and persists. There are a lot of poor children in the South, but more dispersed in that rural land. In the North you have poverty too, but the large cities and their suburbs distort the wealth of the region and the very concentrated levels of poverty, particularly in non-white areas.
America is a such a large and diverse place, geographically and socially, that I posed the question to the students that perhaps there are actually many Americas. Yes, of course, there is one Constitution and one currency. Beyond that there is a centrally produced culture that is transmitted from Hollywood, Manhattan office suites, and the satellites of Clear Channel in Texas.
Yet despite the efforts of capitalists, America is still a richly diverse land, for better or worse. Visit communities in region X and you will see fences in front yards, in the Midwest, that would be taboo. Watch people walk and use public transportation in some Northeastern cities, while we drive most everywhere else. Accents, habits, and local customs are still wide ranging. Why is that so many house in St. Louis are brick? How come chili on spaghetti noodles is a thing in Cincinnati?
Is anyone aware how large America is? Maybe. But flying across the county gives you zero authentic, on-the-ground knowledge. A road trip by interstate highway is too fast and sanitized to interact with all that is America. We actually live and travel in such small circles.
Norway is big. Yes, it actually is, to me at least. My experience of Norway has been largely by foot. Walking, running, wandering while just a little lost… The pace of life at less than 5 kilometers per hour increases the scope of a place. Treading the land brings one into a greater intimacy with a place, its sights, sounds, and smells. I want to believe all the walking we are doing is engendering a greater authenticity with life in Norway.
From my car-driving world, distance are more appreciated when you walk. There is no quick trip across town when you are by foot. Since this life in Norway is a temporary arrangement, I am trying to revel in my shoe leather. From time to time I feel like I should be recording my foot travels with video. Narcissistic and intriguing but impossible. Where would it end and how could it be used? It couldn’t and it wouldn’t.
I don’t know how big Oslo is, but by foot it’s huge. Norway is a lifetime of terrestrial travels to understand. Who knows America? Has anyone known America in its present state? I submit a traveler named John Muir as the most likely candidate.
Muir was born and raised in coastal Scotland. At age 11 his father moved the family to a homestead in Wisconsin, there he wandered the prairies, lakes, and woods. As a man Muir walked through southern Ontario. He walked from Indiana to Florida. Muir rambled over the Sierra, he toured the Alaska. Maybe given his outsider, immigrant perspective, Muir was uniquely positioned to understand and contextualize what he was seeing.
I think John Muir had an idea of how big was his America. With actual shoe leather, and human skin, he walked over the land. Muir smelled the land, felt the various earths beneath his nightly sleeps. The grime of the trail found its way into his mouth and pores. John Muir intimately traveled America in a way that would be almost impossible today.
If you wanted to walk over America today you would have to stick to legal trails and paths, someone else’s idea of where you should go and what you should and should not see. A significant sojourn is possible but it’s bound by fences and interstate highways. Allemannsrett codifies wandering in Norway. It is a right in Norway to wander, to cross paths, to follow instincts and interests, provided you essentially leave no trace.
I don’t think I’ll ever get to understand how big America is. My efforts in Norway will fall short because of time. But I don’t think the point is completion, the journey is the victory, the effort. Calvin Rutstrum told of an exchange between a fishing businessman on vacation and a Cree. The businessman asked the Cree how long it took by canoe and portage to reach a particular spot in the wilderness. The Cree replied it took three days. Proudly the businessman replied that he was able to travel that distance in one hour by chartered float plan. Nonplussed, the Cree asked, “Buy why?”