The “View of the World from Ninth Avenue” in Saul Steinberg’s 1976 cover for The New Yorker will resonate with anyone who’s ever lived or worked in Manhattan. From Ninth Avenue, the island’s grid is enlarged and disproportionate. The Hudson lies before a scattering of other cities and states. Beyond the river is the Pacific Ocean, then China, Japan, and Russia dotted along the horizon. As for what’s beyond that — who cares?
Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People paints a rather different picture. In a thousand pages he explains the founding of the colonies, done “primarily for religious purposes,” the distinct character of this extraordinary nation; its discovery, its growth, and its rise to dominance on the world stage.
Johnson’s whimsical grab-bag of American history proved a valuable companion as I left Manhattan and headed west. First to Nebraska — flat, and smack-bang in the middle – then to coast and mountains of California.
“Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” reads the official state tourism slogan. American self-deprecation is a rare and treasurable thing.
Nebraska, I learn, has more miles of rivers than any other state. Omaha, where I’m visiting my sister and her fiancé, who is in the U.S. Air Force, is on the Missouri River.
This March a bomb cyclone caused massive flooding, which destroyed 2,000 homes and 340 businesses, as well as roads, levees, and crops, amounting to around $1.3 billion in damages. Three people were killed, including a farmer who was trying to tow a trapped car with his tractor.
“He was a good Samaritan, he didn’t even know the people he was going to help,” one local told me.
As in A History of the American People, Christianity is evidently still a prominent feature in Nebraskan culture. In the 1830s, the first missionaries set up camp in Bellevue. The exhibit at Omaha’s Durham Museum explains:
The missionaries’ intentions were good. They eased suffering by providing medical care and food. In their own ways, and for different reasons, the fur traders and the missionaries each contributed to the Indians’ loss of their culture.
Of course, this is a vastly different interpretation from the one you hear in New York.
On arriving at the Durham Museum, I asked the lady at the front desk — an elderly volunteer — what her favorite exhibit was. She looked surprised — “No one has ever asked me that before” — and said something about the furniture that reminded her of her childhood. It occurred to me how young America is. Plastic fruits, inauthentic Indian tepees — these were nothing like the homegrown artifacts in British museums.
The Durham Museum is housed in Omaha’s old Union Station, which was built in 1929 out of the old 1899 station. It impressively documents 150 years of transcontinental railroads, launched with Lincoln’s 1862 Pacific Railway Act. A redheaded fifty-something volunteer showed my sister and me around a train cabin from the 1930s.
“Here’s where the travelers could take a shower. They only got three minutes. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t warsh my hair in three minutes!”
My sister asked me quietly if she’d really just said “warsh.” She had. And, to our delight, she said it again.
Omaha is rightly proud of its zoo, which is far superior to any other I’ve ever been to (in Manhattan or Europe). The buzz that week was over a five-day-old baby giraffe. The baby also made the front page of local newspaper, the Omaha World Herald, which I picked up in the airport along with a book of Omaha proverbs:
• Stolen food never satisfies hunger.
• No one mourns the thriftless.
• A man must make his own arrows.
• The path of the lazy leads to disgrace.
And my personal favorite, which I gave to my sister to make of it what she will, “A handsome face does not make a good husband.”
Upon arriving in San Francisco, I saw a homeless man with his pants (we would say “trousers”) down, under the influence, having soiled himself, and being trailed by a police car. The guidebook chose a rather different emphasis: “San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other American city.”
Before the Europeans came, the San Francisco area was home to two main Native American tribes, the Oholone and the Miwok. Francis Drake managed to sail past the bay in 1579, when he stopped off at Point Reyes. In the late 1700s, some Spanish settlers and missionaries set up camp. But it wasn’t until 1835 that San Francisco was founded by an Englishman by the name of William Richardson.
The waters of the Pacific are far more attractive than those of the Atlantic, I think. The Pacific must be the latter in Katharine Lee Bates’s famous line, “from sea to shining sea.” From the coast we drove to the mountains of Yosemite. Many of the trees were scorched from the wildfires last year, which was the deadliest and most destructive season on record and killed more than 80 people.
This is strange to me. When you grow up in the United Kingdom, the idea of extreme weather, floods and fires, the sort that wrecks communities and kills people — is so foreign. The same goes for wild animals. Yosemite is also home to around 300 to 500 bears. Black bears. If you see one, you’re advised to make a lot of noise, which will likely scare it off. They’re mostly harmless. Unlike the grizzlies of Yellowstone, who will kill you just for the fun of it.
Are the extremities in American weather and wildlife comparable to its politics and temperament? I’ve heard it said, for instance, that where in Britain you find eccentricity, in America you find fanaticism. I asked my dad what he thought of this, but he wasn’t listening. He was looking out at the valley in silent wonder.
Back at my desk in New York, I leave you with Paul Johnson:
We must never forget that the settlement of what is now the United States was only part of a larger enterprise. And this was the work of the best and the brightest of the entire European continent. They were greedy. As Christopher Columbus said, men crossed the Atlantic primarily in search of gold. But they were also idealists. These adventurous young men thought they could transform the world for the better. Europe was too small for them — for their energies, their ambitions, and their visions. In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, they had gone east, seeking to reChristianize the Holy Land and its surroundings, and also to acquire land there. The mixture of religious zeal, personal ambition — not to say cupidity — and lust for adventure which inspired generations of Crusaders was the prototype for the enterprise of the Americas.