“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain. …”
A few weeks ago, after traveling 1,500 miles in three days, pumping 65 gallons of gasoline, and removing each day from the car rumpled McDonald hamburger wrappers, our family – my wife, daughter and granddaughter – arrived in Colorado Springs on the last leg from Kansas City, weary after driving each day from early morning to dusk.
I promised my wife that the next time we would take a train or fly, like most sane folks do.
The next morning I rushed outside to the motel parking lot to gaze once again, as I had done in 1968, at the summit of Pikes Peak.
“It’s awesome,” my granddaughter would later exclaim. There would be more “awesomes” for her to see on the “trail.”
Some 115 years before, in July 1895, Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, traveled by steam train from Boston to Colorado Springs, where she had been invited to teach for the summer at Colorado College. She never tired of looking at Pikes Peak – that “purple mountain majesty” – from her window at the original Antlers Hotel from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
After he got bogged down in heavy snows in November 1806, Zebulon Pike was convinced that no one would ever scale the peak.
What was he thinking!
Bates, accompanied by a few of our colleagues, was determined to reach the summit of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, now that the snow pack had melted – smart lady!
Later, when asked about that experience, she recalled that “we hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
Inspired by this almost-life-changing experience, Bates returned to her hotel room to begin composing the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”
This was my fifth “expedition” to the West – the first being in 1960, when I accompanied an aunt and my grandfather to Arizona on the legendary Route 66.
The “Mother Highway,” as it was called back then, was considered the longest “Main Street in America,” beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles.
Hugging Interstate 40 through the Southwest – just a few hundred feet away in some places – there is no mistaking the change that has occurred in the past 50 years.
I can recall quite vividly traveling down the main streets of towns and cities before the interstate highway system created this isolated barrier from the real America.
Today these places appear only on a map, visible off in a distance.
Now there is an “oasis” at seemingly each exit for the traveler to refuel, to spend the night in the comfort of a motel, or to escape the heat of the day munching a hamburger under the Golden Arches.
These service plazas, it seems, are smack in the middle of nowhere. In some states, rest areas are just a few miles apart. I could have pulled off the interstate to test my luck at Blackjack at one of the several large and attractive casinos that have been built since I last traveled through New Mexico and Arizona, in 1993.
“Awesome” may come closest to describing the development that is occurring in the Western states, no doubt as a result of tourism and smart marketing. Is there a lesson here?
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wind turbines now dot the landscape, churning with the winds sweeping over the plains as we traveled through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Cell towers are everywhere, most notably on one leg of our trip to the Grand Canyon from Cortez, Colo.
Wireless communications have become commonplace, but no one more appreciated that fact than my daughter, who is preoccupied with transferring digital pictures to her Facebook page, or my granddaughter, who enjoyed sharing her experiences on the trip using cell phone messaging with friends back home.
I could not believe that this teenager would never claim to be bored the entire trip. Take a lesson parents.
Disappointingly, I never saw any of the Burma Shave signs, those red and white nuggets of roadside wisdom to ease the monotony of the trip.
However, I noticed as I passed by, new billboards that may reflect the views of their communities: “Is it Constitutional,” near Gallup, N.M. In Amarillo, Texas, “We Support Our Troops.” And in Russell, Kan., “In God We Trust.”
Not surprisingly, America has become the vacation destination to people around the world. In Monument Valley, located on the Navajo Reservation, I met an English couple who preferred to spend their holidays in America, rather than in Europe.
“You Yanks are so fortunate to have such a multifaceted landscape that we don’t have in Europe,” they said.
At Elvis’ home at Graceland, in Memphis, a doctor from Croatia expressed his gratitude to America for protecting the world against terrorism. His farewell as he turned to leave me was “God bless America.”
There were so many delightful folks I met who freely and generously shared their thoughts on the issues that concern all of us, especially the economy, and saving jobs.
However, one lady, an employee at our motel in Colorado, may have captured the feelings of most: “I pay my taxes, work hard with little to show for it, respect the law, and proudly display Old Glory on my porch, but I feel that the politicians don’t know that I exist.”
There’s no place like home, and it was great to see once again that familiar Pennsylvania highway greeting sign.
Until my next trip – Happy Birthday, America.
David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears the first Sunday of each month.