Staying at a youth hostels in the USA gives me the opportunity to talk about my country on my own turf. I can now make a statement about the USA, and if a European disagrees with me I can lead them to an open doorway and say “LOOK!”
Now you see what I mean.
I am not the foreigner here, they are. It is rare that I have such an oratory chit in my pocket, so I am sure to cash it in.
I entered into the dorm room at the Phoenix hostel and took an upper bunk above a bed that had some Virginia Woolf book laying upon it. There was no question about my bunk mate’s sex or nationality.
“America is soooo big!” spoke the English girl who occupied the bunk under me, “I never knew how big this country was until I came here.”
We had crossed paths in the dorm room and, for lack of anything better to say, I muttered the default salutation of the traveler: “Where are you from?”
England, oh really?
I was not surprised by her answer, the Virginia Woolf book on her bed gave her away cleanly. The only people who can read that snooty crap are from the country in which it was written.
The English girls was long, lean, and blond. She looked like a wet dog. She happened to be skinny and tall almost to the point of having askance dimensions between length and breadth, sort of like a puffy and fluffy dog that takes a swim.
She had traveled from her little island home to California and then on to Phoenix by plane. This little tip of the ice berg view of America was enough to give her an impression of just how big this country is. I laughed and told her that I had just driven 3,000 miles from Maine to Arizona, and then proceeded to explain just how far three thousand miles is:
It is 3,000 miles from Paris to Tehran; 3,000 miles from Mexico City to Lima; 3,000 miles from Beijing to Kabul. These measurements puts the Goliath size of the United States into a global prospective.
For the traveler, the size of America is not measurable by the places you are able to visit, but by all of the places you don’t. People can not travel the USA, this is a country that cannot be checked off a traveler’s list, it is not a country that can be done: to do so would take a lifetime. It is my impression that if someone did seek to really travel the USA and get to know all of its environs and various cultures and regions it would take so long that by the time they were finished they would just have to start over again — because it all would have changed in the intervening years.
I have criss crossed this country so many times that I know that I have not seen or experienced any of it. My cross country jaunts have only given me a view from the ledge of my own country: I know that I could never travel all the way through this land. It is too big.
I feel like an astronomer in this regard, where one answer just leads to a thousand new questions — each place that I travel to in the USA just means that I find out about many more that I still would like to go to.
The English girl wants to travel to the usual sites in the USA: San Francisco, Arizona, New Orleans, New York City, but the how to’s of such a journey are complicated, for you cannot just wake up and go to New York when you are sitting in Phoenix.
Unless, of course, you fly.
But flying is not travel. Flying is like teleportation, Theroux calls flying “transfer not travel,” and I must agree with him.
Flying places is like jumping your own man in checkers — it is sort of cheating. It is cheating unless your ground rules state that it is OK to jump your own man — that your travel plan is to fly between the places you want to visit — but who the hell would want to play checkers like that?
Yes, you travel by plane to get somewhere, not to travel. You fly to arrive, and traveling has nothing to do with arrival. When you step on board an aircraft you do not begin your travels until after you land.
By this token the USA is a country that begs to be traveled overland:
There are fast roads that criss cross the country every which way, and you can get on a highway and travel almost a straight line for three thousand miles without deviating a couple degrees of latitude north or south. America is the land that gave birth to the road trip.
English Girl in Death Valley
“The place was like something out of a dream. There is just nobody out there, I could just die and nobody would know about it,” spoke the English girl about her visit to Death Valley and Joshua Tree.
“But you could just die anywhere,” I suggested to round off her statement a little.
“No,” the English girl strongly disagreed, “there is really nobody out there. Someone could just kill me and nobody would know.”
She feared the desolate hinterlands of America, she feared a place that has land as far as you could see but no people, she also seemed surprised at how much of the USA is hinterlands. She was clearly not expecting the United States of America to be so unpopulated.
“I am more afraid of cities,” I replied, “I feel that if a person is going to kill me then there is a much better chance of it happening where there are more people.”
“Yes,” the English girl though for a moment, “but in a city people can see the person who is killing you and stop him.”
But the English girl was not finished professing her fears about the emptiness of America. “I could not believe that they did not lock the doors at night,” she said.
“Why should they?” I responded, “if someone was going to travel way out to Death Valley to get you then a lock on the door isn’t going to do you much good.”
I began to appreciate how openly the English girl showed her culture in my country — this is good. There are few things worse than when a foreigner pretends to share the same values as the people of a country they travel through. There are few things more futile than an outsider trying to blend in, few things more despicable than a foreigner pretending to be a local.
“I am a local in such and such Thai village,” I have heard some white dreadlocked travelers try to claim from time to time.
No, you are a dummy.
The English girl was English, and made no pretenses to the contrary. “Traveling here has really made me see how English I really am,” she stated. “I think that many Americans think that English people are a little stuck up and sometimes I say things here and listen to myself and say ‘wow, that really sounded stuck up!'”
She even made a jest about Americans and guns, and I was forced to pick up the refrain:
“Guns are used for hunting food,” I answered, and then I realized how wild my statement truly was: Americans still go out in the wilds and hunt for their food. This is not civilized.
“What animals do you hunt?” the English girl asked.
“Deer, Elk, Moose, Bear,” I named the big game because stating that I hunt squirrels for food would have sounded ridiculous.
“Moose? You hunt moose!?!”
And I explained that Americans really do hunt moose.
“But you don’t put the animal’s heads on the wall after you kill them . . . right?” she asked.
I answered that I don’t, but that doing so ensures that you really do use every part of the animal.
“What if hunters killed all the moose and they went extinct?” she then inquired.
“It wouldn’t happen, Americans are not that good with their guns,” I responded.
The English girl looked at me funny.
“Another thing that is backwards about you Americans is that you use Fahrenheit,” spoke the English girl to two Americans at a youth hostel in Phoenix.
The two Americans shot each other a little glance. We would never be caught starting a sentence with “your culture is backwards because . . .” in any country ever, and they both seemed to be thrown off by the high hand of the civilized world.
The two Americans remained silent for a moment.
“Why do you think the Fahrenheit system is backwards?” one of them finally spoke.
“Because the rest of the world uses Celsius!” the English girl roared with a hawking laugh.
The two Americans sat quietly for a moment wondering if it would be worth replying to this frontal assault. Finally, one of the Americans shot back:
“Just because everyone else in the world does something does not mean that they are advanced, people use to think that the earth was flat. That is not good reasoning to make an argument over.”
The English girl shrugged and sat silently, thinking of the next point through which she could prove that American culture is, in fact, backwards.
“Lots of things about America is so old fashioned,” she spoke, “I use to think that America was a more advanced country, but I come here and see that you still leave tips!”
I had to agree with her. The United States of America is a country that is in no way similar to any other country on the planet. If the rest of the planet does one thing, we will do another — this is our character.
Sitting in a youth hostel in America with foreigners has made me realize fully how much of an American I am. They are the foreigners, I am the local. The roles are reversed, and I get to tell other people the way it is in my country. Just like I am told by locals all over the world.
I sit at a large wooden table at a hostel in Phoenix enjoying the fact that I am, for once, a local.
Vagabond Journey Phoenix Series