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blue highways

August 21, 2009

When I was a toddler, just after my brother was born, my family moved from Vancouver, BC to Toronto, ON.  My father had taken a job there;  later my mother would return to work as a public health nurse.

The winters were filled with snowball fights and icicles hanging from the porch.  The summers were hot and humid, with thunderstorms forcing us out of the public pool and popsicles dripping down our wrists.  For my brother and me, it was what we knew.

After seven years, my parents had had enough of living back east.  They were tired of the extremes in weather and we all missed our extended family.  We planned our return to the West Coast – but an Air Canada flight with our worldly goods following in the hands of movers was not my parents’ way. 

 More their style: they obtained air brakes licences, bought a beat-up tractor-trailer and a retired school bus, turned the school bus into a motorhome (during the trip), and loaded all of our possessions into the truck.

And even though my mother was a fan of Laurel’s Kitchen and healthful foods, we stocked up on cases and cases of Mountain Dew, Fresca, and Orange Fanta.

We set out from Toronto at the beginning of the summer, making a seven-week meandering journey across (much of) the country, back to Vancouver.  The several cats and the dog stayed with the bus.  My brother and I traded off riding with Mum or Dad, and we all learned how to use the CB radio.

Every year of the rest of my childhood, on the August day that was the anniversary of our return, we celebrated.  Being in and from The West is a very specific part of who we are.  We didn’t just travel here: we came HOME.

That odyssey of a trip still shapes my preference for travelling by back roads and surface streets, where the people are.  I like to travel at a pace that allows me to see things: to try the chili at the one-off diner, to photograph the World’s Largest Whatever that is a town’s pride and joy, to meet the old guy who fishes from the dock, to stop at a kid’s lemonade stand.

***

Tom Brokaw is making a journey across America, on Highway 50.  He intends to meet people in the communities along this road, which stretches from Ocean City, Maryland to Sacramento, CA, and see how they are adapting to the changes we face, to learn what is important to the folks outside of DC and Manhattan.

In his words:

In all the years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve seldom lived through such a story-rich time as what we’re living through right now; because all the nerve endings of this country are absolutely exposed, and people are paying attention in ways that I can’t remember since 1968. They know that their own destiny is at stake here. All the ground beneath their feet now has shifted, almost anything that they believed a year ago has turned out not to be true, and they’re coursing into a wilderness and they don’t know how it will take shape.

What better time to take to the road to listen to what’s on the minds of Americans?

This is cool!

Learn more about the American Character project here.  Watch the dispatches as they are posted here.  And look for a primetime documentary special on USA network in January 2010.

 

listening to: The Rankin Family, Tell My Ma

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