I left my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 9:15 yesterday morning, and arrived at my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., at 4:15 yesterday afternoon–an eight-hour trip, allowing for the change in time zones. The reason why it takes so long is that Smalltown, the place in southeast Missouri where I grew up and where the rest of my family still lives, isn’t close to any major airports. It’s a two-hour drive south of St. Louis and a two-hour drive north of Memphis. To get there, I take a taxi to LaGuardia, a plane to St. Louis, and a regional shuttle bus to Smalltown. Short of chartering a helicopter, I couldn’t make the trip in much less time than that.
Every time I visit Smalltown, I’m struck all over again by the sheer size of the United States, something that never fails to impress visitors from elsewhere, though Americans take it for granted. We’re not the only big country in the world, but I wonder if we might not be the only one whose citizens commonly travel such long distances by such circuitous routes. Perhaps Canada is like that. A Canadian friend of mine tells me that Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” sums up her life pretty accurately: “I took a ferry to the highway/Then I drove to a pontoon plane/I took a plane to a taxi/And a taxi to a train/I’ve been traveling so long/How’m I ever going to know my home/When I see it again?” On the other hand, I doubt a resident of downtown St. Petersburg would make his way to Siberia all that often, even if his mother did live there. When my mother was a girl, Americans didn’t take such journeys lightly, and her parents were both born in an age when eight-hour trips were more likely to be made by horse. You can’t get very far on a horse in eight hours. Back then, the world was what you saw outside your window. Now it’s what you see on TV.
I’d never do it again, but I once traveled all the way to Smalltown and back again in a single day to attend my grandmother’s funeral, an experience I wrote about many years ago in a memoir of my small-town youth:
Once upon a time, the children of America stayed close to the nest and ate Sunday dinner with their parents and went to work in the family business. Now they seek their destinies in faraway lands called Chicago and Paducah and Memphis and New York, though they come home as often as they can: for Christmas usually, for funerals always.
I glanced at my watch. My brother would be doing the driving, and he drove nearly as well as my father, so I had nothing to worry about. I squeezed my father’s hand and listened to the preacher. A few hours later, I looked down at the lights of New York through the scratched window of a jet airliner, marveling at the thought that I could eat breakfast in New York and go to bed in New York and, in the middle of the day, help to bury an eighty-four-year-old woman in a cemetery deep in the Missouri wildwood. Perhaps I was not so far from home as I thought. Perhaps I had not traveled so far as I thought.
Perhaps, indeed, I haven’t–and in some ways, Smalltown and New York are growing closer every day. My brother, for example, knows the rumor du jour about John Kerry, not because he heard it on the evening news or read it in the Smalltown Standard-Democrat but because he has a computer and a high-speed connection to the Internet. Nevertheless, Smalltown is still a long way from New York, not just in clock time but by other yardsticks as well. No sooner had I unpacked my bag, for instance, than my sister-in-law was asking me if I’d seen a preview of The Passion of the Christ, and whether I thought it’d be any good. They’re talking about Mel Gibson in Smalltown, and not the way they’re talking about him in New York, either, even though the people here also watch Seinfeld reruns and read blogs. It’s a big country, big enough that there are still plenty of nice places to live that are two hours from the nearest airport, big enough to be infinitely more varied than a lifelong Manhattanite who gets all his news from the New York Times can imagine.
I love that difference, and the vastness that makes it possible. On Sunday afternoon, I climbed into the shuttle bus (a minivan, actually) and headed down I-55 from St. Louis to Smalltown. It’s a beautiful drive, especially north of Ste. Genevieve and most especially in winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees that cover the rolling hills, leaving behind a narrow but subtle palette of colors, nothing but tan, brown, grey, and dark pine green, all set in a big bowl of blue sky, with an occasional bright billboard to remind you that people live here, too. As I drifted off to sleep just south of Ste. Genevieve, the radio in the van was playing the Eagles; when I woke up again, the hills had flattened out and the radio was playing Dwight Yoakum. That’s how I knew I was close to Smalltown. I always know my home when I see it again.