On A Cross-Country Trip, Finding An America That's Already Great

Sep 27, 2017

Since the last presidential election, with all its ugliness, I’ve wanted to see a kinder America. An America where people work to improve their communities.

And a "cooler" America, where people celebrate art, music, and ideas that transcend politics and its malcontents.

The America I found, traveling coast to coast, was even kinder and cooler than I’d expected.

I found a cooler America in cities -- cities I didn’t expect. A unicyclist rides past, juggling. A young woman with a tattooed sleeve serves a craft beer with my parmesan truffle fries. Several art galleries are having openings tonight. And the average age here? About 25.

Had I died and gone to Brooklyn? To Boulder? Nah, it was just another Friday night in Fargo, North Dakota.

America's small cities -- Fargo, and Sandpoint, Idaho, and Bay City, Michigan -- are preserving their past, while crafting a future bright enough to draw millennials. These cities were already "great again."

A road sign on the Fargo, North Dakota border.
Credit Bruce Watson / NEPR
Another cool night in Fargo, North Dakota.
Credit Bruce Watson / NEPR

I found a kinder America, too. Strangers stopped my bike group and, upon learning of Charlie Read, the late son of two cyclists, whipped out a $20, a $50 or once a $100 bill and gave it to the Epilepsy Foundation. No questions asked, no thanks needed.

It happened a dozen times. "This is all I can afford," many said.

There were disturbing sights. Across rural America, nostalgia is the air many people breathe.

People hunkered down in the past. Bar TVs airing "The Andy Griffith Show." Classic car rallies, oldies radio, parades like your grandmother watched. Rural America is trying to pretend it's 1959.

But young people are fleeing these enclaves, heading for the cool cities, whose hope and spirit are the true face of the future.

If I had my way, I'd require all Americans to cross the country, overland, at least once. Only by driving through “flyover country” can you understand the immensity of America, the variety of people, the triumph and tragedy of our history.

"Travel," Mark Twain wrote, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."

Back home now, this traveler agrees.

Bruce Watson lives in Montague, Massachusetts. He is the author of four books on American history, and of the new blog "The Attic — For a kinder, cooler America." Watson traveled across the country in summer 2017 to drive a support vehicle for seven cyclists.