America, The Inner Beauty

Melissa Mayntz

© Copyright 2005 by Melissa Mayntz 

Photo of Mount Timpanogos.

 Over 50% of people who relocate stay within the same state, even the same county, as where they grew up. As my husband and I began our relocation from Florida to Utah, we eagerly anticipated the opportunity to see much of our country’s beautiful landscapes.

 It began on one shining sea, the northern Atlantic coast of Florida, to be exact. My husband and I were bound for the mountain west, driving across America as we relocated to our new home in northern Utah. Hope and optimism flooded our veins and filled our luggage as we ventured westbound along Interstate 10, and we fancied ourselves a bit like pioneers trekking to the promised land and a new life.

 The first evening we rested in Georgia, not nearly so far from Florida as we’d hoped to travel. Of course, the movers were late and the truck took longer than anticipated to load – one wouldn’t think a sparse two bedroom apartment could contain quite so much – but certainly homesteaders in the 1860s had just as much difficulty leaving their homes and heading into the sunset. Perhaps, I reasoned, Georgia could be the fruited plain; after all, the garish billboards every few miles touted fresh peaches, pecans, and citrus. We didn’t investigate these roadside stands, however, and didn’t see any fruited groves, but our journey had just begun.

 The next day we trekked through the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, trimming the corners of Tennessee and Kentucky. The Appalachians, however, aren’t nearly tall enough to be purple, and as eroded nubs of their former glory, they don’t carry themselves with the majesty they must have portrayed epochs ago. By the time we reached Illinois, I was focused on the next goal: amber waves of grain.

 After all, we would cross the Great Plains as we traveled along Interstates 70, 29, and 80 spanning Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska respectively. Surely in nearly nine hundred miles we’d find wheat fields ripe and golden with heavy seed heads waving in the late July heat.

 Another American dream thwarted. In Missouri, the closest we came to amber were the orange stripes embracing thousands of road cones as we trudged through construction zone after construction zone with little warning and plenty of traffic. Crossing the Mississippi River was less than exotic as well, since the steel and concrete barriers prevented all but the most superficial glimpse of the mighty river that divides east from west. The Gateway Arch towered above the western bank with a shimmering silver curve, but silver is far from amber, and fields of grain aren’t likely to be found in one of the nation’s largest cities.

 Iowa and Nebraska fared no better. Hundreds of miles of cornfields filled the windows, mirrors, and headlights of our car as we searched for the nation’s elusive beauty. These were indeed great plains – my atlas even agreed by placing the “G” in “Great Plains” squarely on Interstate 80. I drove by that letter on the map, right near Kearney, but never saw one amber wave of grain. Not even a wilted beige stalk.

 Surely Denver would provide some purple mountains’ majesty, and we eagerly anticipated our short side trip to the Centennial State. Having failed to encounter America the Beautiful in over seventeen hundred miles, we needed a break from broken clichés.

 Colorado’s capital is indeed on the verge of the Rocky Mountains, but any purple they may have flaunted was hidden in a haze of smog and heat. Furthermore, despite travel brochures and tourist guides to the contrary, the mountains are quite a distance from Denver; too far to discern any shades of lilac, plum, or lavender.

 Unexpectedly, we did discover America the Beautiful within the walls of Denver’s Park Meadows Shopping Center. The gorgeous mall designed as an oversized hunting lodge was complete with wood beam ceilings, trophy heads, and other rustic décor. There, in a vaulted atrium, the lyrics of that patriotic melody are emblazoned in meticulous relief on the upper beams encircling a shimmering, wooded pool. How ironic that in over half the drive we’d failed to find a hint of that beauty manifested in our modern nation, but the dream was alive and glorified in a man-made glen amidst trendy stores and food boutiques. The tribute was subtly appropriate, given that the lyrics were composed atop Pike’s Peak, a scant seventy miles away. Having driven through much of the vista, however, I doubted that standing on the craggy overlook today would offer the same inspiring view.

 The next day we continued our journey, crossing into Wyoming and once again heading west. Torrential rain dampened our spirits at first, but as we drew closer to our personal utopia we still hoped to discover some vestige of the natural beauty this country heralds as its crowning glory.

 Another three hundred miles, but no lyrics sprang to life. We passed outcroppings of ancient bedrock, massive fields of jutting boulders, and yet more fields of flaxen corn desperately trying to convince us they were amber. We knew that our new home in Pleasant Grove nestled on the bench of the Wasatch Mountains, yet no mountains sprang up to proudly exhibit their majesty, and the red tinge of iron ore was far from any purple hue.

 Only after we crossed into Utah and descended into Salt Lake City did we see a hint of purple on the western face of the mountains. After two thousand miles, however, the idyllic dream of majesty had faded into a tired odometer and protesting four-cylinder engine. Wearily, we turned south on Interstate 15 and finished the last thirty miles that brought us finally home.

 What happened to our country? In retrospect, we had never seen one trace of America the Beautiful: the shining sea we’d left in Florida was a dingy gray, littered with tourist refuse and storm debris. Throughout the pilgrimage, oppressive summer heat had compressed the spacious skies into a harsh, sweltering shroud. The closest fruit we’d found were tiny sour berries on bushes outside various Motel 6 rooms, none of which comprised anything remotely resembling a plain. And we won’t even get into the disappointment thousands of acres of corn wrought when we were searching for amber waves of grain.

 America the Beautiful. In a 2,130 mile journey, we never found it. But once we began the most mundane tasks – unpacking, registering the car, stocking the kitchen cupboards – we discovered that America truly is beautiful. You can’t see it from a car window and you won’t find it along the interstates or highlighted on the atlas. But you do find beauty in the journey itself, knowing that you are free to explore the nation, to move as it suits your family and your desires.

 Most countries simply do not encompass the vast expanse of terrain that the United States is fortunate to have. For many people, a cross country drive is just a few hours, but the US features such variety that such a journey can take days or weeks. In seven days of driving we reveled in amusement parks, cheered at baseball games, and stretched our legs in countless malls. We relaxed each night in a different hotel with identical hospitality, meeting people who greeted us with smiles and tips on how to enjoy the area. We toured historical sites, read innumerable plaques, and took dozens of photographs. Our country has a rich and exquisite history, and each small town entertains some miniscule vestige of pioneer spirit. At one point, after all, our ancestors were pioneers, searching for their promised land.

 We found our beautiful America in Utah, in a new job and a new home with welcoming neighbors and beckoning adventures. Each morning I gaze out our window toward the east, and as I bid Mount Timpanogos hello and watch the sun sparkle over its southern ridge, I remember the journey that brought me across the nation and to a new realization of how beautiful this country is. Our neighbors, grocer, and even the DMV clerk who registered our license plate all welcomed us with smiles and grace, and theirs is the true beauty of America.

 Next year, who knows. In the spring, my husband and I are planning a trip to San Francisco. While we won’t be driving, I won’t need hundreds of miles, incoherent road signs, and state welcome centers to search for the inherent beauty in a land so rich that its citizens can reshape their dreams into new realities. America is beautiful because of its promise and wealth – not in gold or silver, or even amber waves of grain. Our wealth is from the journey itself, the journey of being American and pursuing our dreams as we see fit, whether that is along the Florida coast, the banks of the Mississippi River, or the mountains of Utah.

 Perhaps Katharine Lee Bates, when she stood atop Pike’s Peak in 1893 and was inspired to compose “America, The Beautiful,” saw the promise that this nation held. Today, the view has changed, but the beauty remains. Our beauty truly is in God’s grace and the brotherhood that binds us all, sharing our varied dreams throughout individual journeys to discover the inner beauty that we needn’t travel two thousand miles to find.  

Melissa Mayntz is a freelance writer and frequent traveler. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers, newsletters, and websites. Her favorite trip is to take a cruise, something she plans as frequently as possible.

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