Trip Start Jun 29, 2007
Trip End Jul 15, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Above the blackboard in my classroom stretches a list of ten adjectives describing America.  Given the prompt to list qualities defining "America" my inveterate American Literature students have brainstormed the expected terms of "freedom", "pride", "diversity", etc.  Today, on our thirteen-hour drive from Chicago to North Platte, Nebraska, another of these adjectives kept coming to my mind: "Ambition." 

Last night we strolled Chicago's bustling and swanky Michigan Ave dodging Midwestern tourists (calf-high bleached tube socks, Cubs hats, and 2.5 tow-headed children) alternating with Chicago natives (waif-like, black-clad, and clutching Prada bags containing mysterious treasures) as we waited for our table at Giordano's, a legendary pizza joint serving three-inch oozingly thick pies.  In our reconnaissance mission to sample, not savor, our way across America, Chicago quickly landed a place on our "must revisit" list thanks to the laid-back yet confident air of the throngs enjoying a Friday happy hour or after-dinner cigar, the well-tended street gardens, and the momentary flashes of the placid Charles River and eclectic Millenium Park.  Oprah sightings were not to be had, although it was easy to imagine her this morning dashing along a row of brownstones on a quick jog toward the limitless horizon defining the boundary between Chicago skyscrapers and the miles of Lake Michigan.

After an early morning stroll through a farmer's market just off of North State street and the handy purchase of pints of Michigan cherries and blueberries (yes, I was upsold from just the cherries by a hearty, pink-cheeked nineteen-year-old wearing a t-shirt advertising a college I had never heard of), we left Chicago for the drive across a time zone.  Along the way, we noted the "world's largest truck stop", the brown slug of the Mississippi, the "friendly town" of Hillsdale, Iowa (don't be fooled-we investigated and found that the town had packed up years ago but had forgotten to take along the sign advertising its existence), and even the "Fun Valley Ski Resort" in the rolling hills of Iowa.   I should note here that the existence of a ski resort aspiring to anything beyond a bunny slope is a laughable venture in Iowa, as their highest elevation equals the most un-noteworthy foothill in Pennsylvania.

Our culinary adventures today consisted of a Maid-Rite sandwich in sleepy Newton, Iowa (think sloppy joe, minus the "sloppy", plus pickles, mustard, and ketchup) and a swing through Des Moines, Iowa for Brader's Pharmacy where they dish up a creamy homemade dish of ice-cream (me-fresh strawberry, James-turtle sundae) and where, you may be interested to know, locals still keep running tabs.  The lone customer seated at the counter when we arrived slurped down the last dregs of his chocolate soda and yelled back to the midwesternly-cheerful pharmacist to put the ice cream on his account.  After the relatively brief traverse through Illinois and Iowa, the fields of Nebraska covered the final five hours of our journey in a hypnotic blanket of cornfield and relentless sun.

Now I sit somewhere in the middle of the American plains in a Nebraska Hampton Inn typing up these adventures in a conference room.  Yes, you read correctly.  Our "executive-suite" room boasts a conference room twice the size of the actual bedroom, and as I type, a broad expanse of table reflects the muted glow of the laptop monitor.  I think we lost our real room to some Nebraskan high school girls' volleyball team being carted around in mini-vans proclaiming "Honk for #7" in green soap letters.  This road trip has piqued my interest.  As we drove over the Fort Pitt Bridge in Pittsburgh (was that really just two days ago?), James asked me what I was most excited for on this trip.  My answer was "imagination and reality."  I've been wondering:  Can imagination equal reality?  Can reality surpass imagination?  For example, will my experience of the Golden Gate bridge be an elation or a disappointment in comparison to my mental image of the famed landmark? 

In the past two days, I am learning that the answer to these questions would be that experience is at once both imagination and reality-the constant reevaluation and readjusting of expectations.  No, America has not presented the hokey, Romantic vision I had conjured, and yet in unexpected ways, every leg of the journey has presented the idea of "Ambition."  If Oprah can embody the American dream in Chicago, and the middle of Iowa can boast a ski resort, then perhaps I am experiencing first-hand the truth that my students elucidated so clearly: America embodies a hope for great things on the horizon.  With that thought, I close this entry and leave the eight overstuffed leather chairs to their solitary meeting.  Tomorrow's horizon holds another four-hour drive for us, and the bed in our shoe-box-sized room is whispering my name.
Next stop: Boulder, Colorado
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