My Vertigo

Soon I will hit the long road that links the East Coast to the West.

Cross-country trips are a favorite summer tradition of mine. But I can’t brag to own it. My husband – he can be very creative when it comes to driving – started this ritual on 9/11.

“When I followed the directions to get home,” he told me after his speedy return from Boston to San Francisco. “I wanted to follow others. I could have gone anywhere.” He always paused there. “Anywhere.”

It is because of this pause, more an invitation than a silence, that, two years later, the six of us went on our first family cross-country trip. Since 2003, we have, over the course of several summers, first with the four children, then with three, with two, and this year with one, zigzagged across most of America.

Schoolteachers, of all people, know the importance of field trips. Traveling through America by car is a recommended field trip for anyone willing to grasp firsthand the size of these United States. For immigrant parents and their first-generation children, it is an obligatory journey.

It is a wonder we manage to get along relatively well when there is so little in common between the skyscrapers and eclectic neighborhoods of New York City and the pueblos and mesas of New Mexico, between the Maine pine trees and the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert or between the industrial skyline of Columbus and the vast plains of Nebraska. The American flag, draped on a bridge in New Hampshire or a building in Wyoming, is sometimes the only tangible reminder that we are still in the United States of America. Even English, spoken differently throughout the country – yes, I can spot accents, too! – reflects the extraordinary diversity of the fifty states. Traveling through America, at the pace of a car, also provides an honest, sometimes brutal, but necessary reality check.

In August, when we pull in our driveway after a cross-country trip, the children always rush inside our home. It has been closed for weeks and doesn’t smell familiar. But the beds are made and like everyone else I lie down. But unlike my husband and the children, I never fall asleep easily after a cross-country trip. Even with my eyes closed, the quietness of my room never brings anticipated sleep. The infinity of the United States of America keeps me awake, restless, and hungry for more.

American flags on the motorcycles. Bumper stickers on trucks: “Without trucks, America stops.”  Bumper stickers on cars: “Got Jesus?” Waitresses working long shifts while their children are home. Gas attendants smoking behind the counter while customers get cheap coffee and donuts. “How are you’s?” at the rest areas. Smiles and nods at the free continental breakfast buffet. Miles under the wheels, trucks zooming by, sandwiches on the side of the road, and newspapers spread all over the car.

And the infinite beauty of a land as vast, as diverse, as generous, and as resilient as its people keeps me awake one more night.

In 2007, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy published The American Vertigo. The book was written as he made his own cross-country trek, following the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835 and 1840. Although Mr. Levy met interesting and well-known people that I won’t ever meet, his America didn’t smell, taste, or even look much like mine. However the title of his book drew me when I bought it in France.

There was no other possible title, I realized as I finally drifted away that summer.

And this is why, every year, I crisscross our country, in search of the vertigo that, like an addict, I need to remind me that I live in America.

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