Last week I returned from a nearly two-week trek to Nevada and the West Coast, Vera. The road trip was designed around a Christmas visit with Mike, your grandmother’s brother, in Las Vegas, where he lives, and the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, California, where our alma mater, Penn State, was to play. But there was much time in between and on the way and back.
We like road trips. As usual, we listened to some audio books in the car. And then tucked in some visits to previously unseen places, like Death Valley and some sites in San Diego. We like to explore. We also returned to some favorite spots, like Santa Barbara and the wine country to its north.
It’s not usual to encounter unexpected beauty on our road trips, especially in places we don’t expect to find it. But this trip was unusual. I can’t explain it. I don’t know why it was different. But it was.
As travelers, naturally we daily encountered service workers of one type or another, whether it was clerks at the front desk of hotels, waiters at restaurants, convenience store clerks, docents on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway or whatever. Moreover, we encountered some of these people on Christmas eve and day, as they worked to serve the multitude of people visiting Las Vegas’s casinos, restaurants and shows.
Early on I noticed something. And it never stopped, not even through California, a land of scenic beauty but whose culture I never have found particularly appealing.
What I couldn’t help notice is how unusually nice and pleasant everyone was. I’m trying to think if there was any exception to this but I can’t think of one. Yet I have no trouble recalling specific instances of amazing beauty and delight.
I can’t recall a road trip of such a nature previously. Ever. Sure, we have encountered many delightful people along the way of each of our trips. But never can I recall such consistency and striking beauty across the board.
This struck me as particularly odd because America is in a particularly surly stage these days. People routinely tweet nasty stuff. Facebook pages are full of strident and divisive posts. Cable shows drip with venom. Newspapers’ editorial and op-ed pages are replete with mean-spirited gripes and attacks. Moreover, not a day goes by when our president-elect isn’t leveling ad hominem attacks at someone.
Yet we didn’t encounter any of this on our trip. The America we found was quite different from the America that elected a man of Mr. Trump’s character and personality. But there aren’t two Americas; there is only one.
I don’t have an adequate explanation, but I suspect it has more to do with the people themselves. I suspect that people are simply better than we sometimes act, especially when we’re dealing with each other face to face and not hiding behind anonymity or sitting at a keyboard or in front of a television or radio.
The polarized political culture of the day, in which many people treat politics as a blood sport and fellow Americans as adversaries to be defeated, does in fact carry over into our lives. It causes us to say things we might not otherwise say in more civil times. It causes ruptures in families and friendships. And vitriolic rantings. But is it who we truly are? Undoubtedly; it’s not made-up. Yet, obviously, it’s not our entire essence. If it were, our trip would have been an entirely different experience.
The road trip revealed the other essence of humanity. It revealed the attractive side of the human spirit. And the gentleness and respect we long to show, and to be shown by, one another. Indeed, it revealed goodness. And beauty.
The meanness is still out there, of course. But there is hope. There is hope that civility will return. There is hope we will survive this ugliness. There is hope the beauteous nature of humanity will again flourish in this magnificent land.
For me, the trip was confirmation that things are not as bad as they sometimes seem. That doesn’t mean things won’t get worse before they get better. They may. And it doesn’t mean that humanity’s ugliness is an aberration. History is clear that it isn’t. Yet history is equally clear that it can never have the human spirit all to itself.
Humans are capable of unspeakable atrocities. But humans also are capable of amazing acts of kindness, sacrificial love and tenderness.
On our trip, we saw nothing but beauty. I needed that.