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On Point

America's Vacation is Over

by Austin Bay
Sep 1, 2002

Our summer vacation was a trek west, along the old Butterfield Stage route that Interstate 10 shadows.

My youngest left her CD collection in Blythe, Calif. -- that was our desert disaster. The loss wasn't discovered until Los Angeles. The motel manager in Blythe said she'd keep looking.

Los Angeles is both an American end and a beginning, a concrete madness plastered on the desert. But the traffic moves, and so does the imagination. My daughters hiked through Warner Brothers' back lot, through movie sets of New York sidewalks and Paris street corners. I've never seen the "The Gilmore Girls" TV show, but my youngest showed me, with beaming delight, the Gilmore Girls' church, their school, their home. The neighborhood's a facade, the houses hollow, but so what? Good characters and good story brought the sets to life.

We drove north and saw sequoias. Among the colossal redwoods, proportions change and dimensions shift. Men and women shrink in vast shade. Yeah, they're plant world skyscrapers. I couldn't quite can that thought, these World Trade Centers of the chlorophyl kingdom. In fact, to the south, in the national forest, redwoods were burning ...

We drove to Monterrey, then snaked south on Highway 1, where the Pacific slams the rock coast a spectacular hundred feet straight down from the road bed. Santa Barbara -- my daughter's lost CDs arrived at our cousin's place, mailed by the motel manager in Blythe. Desert disaster resolved.

The drive home took us into Nevada, Utah and Colorado. As we passed through Vegas, I called The Strip a tawdry rip-off, but the sweetheart waitress in the diner on the city's north side -- where strip malls replace The Strip -- drew funny eyes and smiles on the girls' lemonade cups. That's one way she shared her happiness, she said. As I paid the check, the cashier told me Nellis Air Force Base was down the road. Pilots had just come in, he added, his eyes suddenly uneasy. Guys just back from flying in the Middle East. The guys were happy, happy to be here.

America, a German friend once told me, is about two things: human potential and human beings experiencing vast space. After driving in America's west, she said, Germany's a cage. By human potential, she meant the creativity released by freedom. As for space, a word she spoke with awe, she must have meant the stretch from Raton, N.M., through Clayton to the Texas border. It's high plains, high skies and elbow room.

We tooled through Raton. As we drove toward Clayton, a storm kicked up, turning a slice of the big country heaven into a catalog of clouds, from gray nimbus to wisps of cirrus, faint white curls eventually fading in the pure blue roof above the Texas Panhandle.

We spent that night in a small Texas town. I got a call from an editor, a request for comments on the progress of The War on Terror. I commented.

Discussion over, I cradled the phone. The cynics can caw, those little people wedded to their sneers, but I silently thanked the Nellis pilots. There's a connection, between their combat missions and the First Amendment, that paragraph that says we're free to comment. I also thought about the sky in New Mexico, about vast space and human potential. I wondered if my daughters saw that, or if all they remembered of our day was 600 miles of highway.

Normality? Or Sitzkrieg, as the fools in the French press dubbed it -- that hiatus between Poland and the Nazi attack on Belgium? For a segment of American society, the War on Terror, this Millennium War, has become superficial videokrieg. Thanks to the guys at Nellis, troops at Campbell, marines at Pendleton, it seems like war is once more "over there." Hit the road, drive west and it's easy to believe America is simply pursuing happiness.

For the responsible in America, however, the vacation's over. The Nellis pilots will have to go east again. Sequoias suggest skyscrapers. For now skyscrapers suggest the World Trade Center, collapsing as debris and smoke.

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