There exists a magical place in this
nation of ours where a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline costs
$3.10. It’s called Gorda, Calif. Situated along scenic
Highway One along California’s Central Coast, Gorda is at
least 30 miles from anything resembling civilization.

Aubrey Henretty

The population of Gorda is exactly one. He owns and operates the
gas station, the town’s solitary building. He’s the
kind of guy who wears bright yellow waders pulled up to his armpits
even when he’s on dry land. I’m guessing he was at one
time a pirate.

My girlfriend and I were driving down the Pacific Coast on
Spring Break, but I didn’t bother to stop for gas in Big Sur,
a much larger town about 40 miles north of Gorda. About an hour
later, we were dangerously low on gas. Relief finally came in the
form of Gorda and its lonely gas station, just as the gas gauge was
edging to the left of “E.”

Why didn’t I just stop in Big Sur? Because it was no big
deal, I told myself. This is America — there’s a gas
station every 10 feet. You see, I never imagined there could be a
stretch of highway along the coastline of the nation’s most
populated state where it was possible to drive for an hour without
seeing a gas station.

I relate this tale not as a precaution to those who may make a
similar journey in the future, nor as a way of criticizing soaring
gas prices. Instead, I tell this story as a means of highlighting
one of the major themes of my 5,000-mile trek across the country:
When it comes to America, I don’t know a goddamn thing these
days.

But my ignorance doesn’t stem from a lack of education or
effort — I do my best to keep up with the times. The real
problem is, I don’t know what America stands for anymore, and
neither does America. We can no longer say “United we
stand” and mean it.

During times of strife we expect our president to step in and
rally the country. But here in the 21st century, in the face of
terrorist attacks and constant criticism from abroad, we’ve
been divided into two distinct groups. The first does indeed rally
behind the president and says, “God bless America and George
W. Bush.” The second points at the president and says,
“It’s not our fault. He did it.”

Of course the nation has been divided along party lines since
nearly the beginning. In the past, at least one side would tolerate
the other. But with our last two presidents, one a liar and the
other a liar and a warmonger, things have changed. Five years ago,
Republicans rebuked Clinton as the most sinful and despicable man
in America, a shining example of everything that’s wrong in
America. Today, Democrats label Bush as the devil incarnate, a man
who strips away freedoms and kills innocent people all in the name
of fighting terror. What kind of country is it where half the
nation is not only embarrassed by its leader, but it downright
hates him? It’s modern-day America.

If we can’t count on our leader or our politics to define
the nation, then perhaps there’s some moral code or common
values that unite us. Nope. A quick look at two cities I visited on
my trip — Las Vegas and St. George, Utah, which are just 120
miles apart — proves otherwise. The cities are diametrically
opposed. Everyone knows Las Vegas as a center of gaudiness and
depravity, and everyone is right. But few know St. George. I think
St. George is best defined by a video rental store that was
situated in a strip mall near our hotel. It wasn’t a
Blockbuster Video as you’d find here. No, this was a store
that would take feature films, censor them, and then market them to
conservative Christian families. These two cities couldn’t
possibly be in the same country, could they? But they are —
they’re in America.

I visited many other places on my trip, and few of them were
even remotely alike. I saw rich and vibrant cities like San
Francisco, as well as small prairie towns like Ogallala, Neb., one
of those places where everyone knows everyone else.

Some may tout what I am describing as diversity. I suppose it
fits a loose definition, but diversity as a concept is only useful
when describing cultures that intersect and blend together. Here,
differing groups are separated and scattered. Little intersection
and even less blending occurs. The liberal, progressive views of
San Francisco rarely cross paths with the conservative, heartland
values of Ogallala.

But for some reason, we’re all still grouped together
under this banner that reads, “The United States of
America.” So now, I sit here and wonder, how can we expect
the rest of the world to like us when we don’t even know who
we are anymore?

Hoard can be reached at
“mailto:hoardj@umich.edu”>hoardj@umich.edu.

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