In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman celebrates the races and nationalities of America, making “a thousand diverse contributions” to the nation’s one identity, its “ever-united lands.” Comparing Americans to the leaves on a many-branched tree, he invites the readers of his poem to gather for themselves “bouquets of the incomparable feuillage of These States.”
Looking back on it, I think that’s what I was doing when I recently made the longest road trip of my life: accepting Whitman’s invitation, gathering bouquets.
Towing a leased, antique Airstream trailer behind a pickup truck, I traveled with my wife, Leslie, and our two English setters, Sage and Sky, from the southernmost point in the continental United States, Key West, Florida, to the northernmost reachable by road, Deadhorse, Alaska, on the gray shores of the Arctic Ocean.
The four of us drove through 18 states and northwestern Canada, past more trees and under wider skies than we ever could have imagined. We baked in temperatures of over 100 degrees for weeks, witnessed the spectacular lightning and hailstorms of the Midwest, and, eventually, drove through a snowstorm.
The circuitous route back home in Connecticut took us down into Texas, where we handed the Airstream back to its owner. Altogether, we covered 16,241 miles in a little under four months.
Some friends and relatives said I was nuts to attempt such a monumental journey at my age—70. But I’d been inspired by the memory of the day, in 1996, when I was in Kaktovic, a settlement on windswept Barter Island, just off Alaska’s north coast. I marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledged allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, 6,000 miles away. Two islands farther apart than New York City is from Moscow and yet part of the same country.
It seemed almost miraculous that a nation so vast, peopled by nearly every race and ethnicity and religion on earth, managed to stay in one piece. What, I wondered, held the United States together?
Years after that Alaska trip, I was asking myself a variation of that question. Was the nation holding together as well as it once did? From reading and listening to the news, I had the impression that Whitman’s “ever-united lands” had fragmented into a patchwork nation of red and blue states where no one could agree about much of anything.
But how accurate was that impression? As Leslie and I left Key West, I resolved to find out by asking everyday Americans the same question I’d put to myself: What holds us together?
I spoke with more than 80 people: white, Latino, African American, and Native American. They came from all walks of life, including a politician in Florida and another in Alaska, a farm woman in Missouri, a wrangler in Montana, college kids living on a commune in Tennessee, an ice-road trucker, and a taco entrepreneur who was also a Lakota Sioux shaman.