We heard America singing … and ready to grow


Walt Whitman heard America singing. We heard singing, too, but we also heard America working, building, organizing, providing for families and dreaming about our future. We found the country shouldering a great cloud of fear, but mostly alive with hope and creativity that we proudly like to voice in English and in a host of other adopted tongues.

In 1976, when I was 21 and completed my series about life in the United States in our Bicentennial year, the country seemed to be blossoming. As I returned home that fall, I went to see what became the year’s  top-grossing film: “Rocky.” I carried a Bicentennial silver dollar in my pocket marked with both a Liberty Bell and the Moon. We knew the world was ours, as Americans, but 1976 suggested the cosmos were ours as well.

In 2010, retracing that earlier journey with my own 21-year-old son, we were reminded at every stop of the overwhelming anxiety Americans feel about our future. But I was surprised to find so many pockets of hope in every big city and back-woods hamlet.

Some dramatic changes were obvious: chiefly the homogenized suburbs spreading like a comforter coast to coast, smothering the colors and flavors of local cultures.  But some things are timeless: the Redwoods seem unchanged, the Grand Canyon still is jaw-dropping in its vast sweep and people always enjoy laughing and telling stories if we take the time to relax and refresh.

I do wonder what my son thinks after his first full-scale glimpse of this crazy quilt of a country he is inheriting.


America is large. And by that I mean huge. That’s the first thing I’ve learned in 9,000 miles. We could have doubled that total without seeing any city twice. The scale of our country is beyond the grasp of my simple mind.

As large as we are, our country also is impossibly small. A department store in southern California is the same as department stores in Michigan, Washington or Georgia. The music playing is the same, styles are the same, drinks are the same and fast food is identical. To discover that radio stations play the same set of songs all over the country, even in Montana, was disturbing. At first, I came to hate this lack of regional character, then I found a local radio station in western Montana listing the menus at local retirement homes. I gratefully switched back to mainstream music and it was so darned convenient.

Of course, America isn’t built on music and department stores; it is built on its people. While people’s characters don’t seem to have changed much since my Dad’s trip in ’76, they do seem to be more transient now. Ask where they’re from and the answer is never easy. One man we visited was from Indiana, lived in Washington, stayed frequently at his cottage in Oregon and had children whose lives involve more states than I could track as he tried to describe it. His story wasn’t unique. Most of the people we met hadn’t merely moved across town, but hundreds of miles to their present location. “Native” is now a loose term and, without fail, the natives we met were sure their children would have to leave home to find jobs. That rootless movement worries us all, at times.

The America I saw on my journey wasn’t in any obvious economic catastrophe, although there were some signs of crisis. More importantly, I didn’t see an America closing in on itself along party or cultural lines. In fact, I saw an America opening up.

Driving through city after city, I saw fertile soil just waiting for growth. Friends my age across the country, strewn about for college, internships and jobs, are exploring exciting opportunities all around them. There are few guarantees that their footing will be solid, but there are many directions in which to keep moving forward.

When my Dad traveled to Seattle back in ’76, it was a bleak city with an economy that seemed to be in a death spiral. Now Seattle exemplifies success. Inspired by the character and vision of those I saw along my journey, when I see bleak areas now, I’ll look forward 34 years and envision new communities springing to life. 

I’m eager to take that journey someday. I may even invite my son to come along.

(Today’s photos and story by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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