You don’t see them at the mall because you only go to certain malls, if you go to malls at all. You don’t see them at work, if you go to work, because you do a certain kind of work. You don’t see them at the restaurants, at least not sitting down, because you don’t go to those kinds of restaurants.
But you do see them at the gas stations, especially on cross-country trips, because gas stations are all the same, even if the people getting the gas are not.
It can be a shock, I know. The bikers and the dude who would be a biker except he is wearing soiled jeans, hopping back and forth nervously from side to side, not ten dollars to his name. The truckers, looking nothing at all like you’d imagine, except for those that do. The families stuffed into rusting Chevy sedans, windows frosted to a filmy white on the inside with dirt and exhaled moisture. The pick-ups hauling trailers, hauling dirt bikes, hauling furniture cross-country that you would hesitate to donate to Goodwill if it was your own.
Some of them could have been you if they had been born somewhere else. Their clothes are clean, their hair combed, their kids go to college. They drive clean cars, lots of half-tons, sure, but those are unexpectedly luxurious inside.
They live a different life than you and me, want different things, and their cars crowd the parking deck at Mt. Rushmore as we arrive, a spur of the moment decision made when we check-in at the hotel in Rapid City and discover we are less than a half-hour away.
The smart crowd got here early and sit down below, in the stadium-style seats directed at a stage, the faces of Rushmore rising up behind. We don’t know what is going on and were surprised at the difficulty in parking and at the cost.
Few masks are in sight though these are the last hours of July, the virus still killing a thousand people a day. The danger is far, far away, the President assuring by his words and actions that there is little to be concerned about.
We overhear others talking and learn that everyone else here is here for the show, the show where down below from the stage patriotic music will blast from the loudspeakers and colored lights will splash and dance upon the mountainside, synchronized to the music’s pulses.
We don’t stay, though the show begins in only ten more minutes. Later I regret leaving, regret tossing away such an American experience, regret not taking the opportunity then to learn more about my own country and its people.
This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.
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