A half-century ago, I was a little boy on a trip with my parents from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit relatives. We crossed Pennsylvania on the recently completed Pennsylvania Turnpike. Pennsylvania from the New Jersey border to the Ohio border was vast, with the magnificent Alleghany range, a subset of the Appalachians, in the broad middle of the state, heralded by the Blue Mountain tunnel. The interstate highway system built under President Dwight Eisenhower was gleaming and exotic back then, with lovely rest stops with real restaurants where you were waited on at tables -- not the slummy fast-food joints that disgrace rest stops today.
At one rest stop I picked up a collection of travel articles, written in easy Reader's Digest style, suited for my age. There was a story about a family driving west and stopping for breakfast somewhere in Nebraska, anticipating the sight of the Rocky Mountains where they were headed. "You have to earn the Rockies," the father said, "by driving through the flat Midwest." Earn the Rockies is a phrase that has stayed with me my whole life: It sums up America's continental geography - and by inference, why America is a world power. It summed up my yearning to travel and see mountains even higher than the Appalachians in Pennsylvania. Finally in 1970, when I was 18, I hitchhiked across America from New York to Oregon and spent a summer roaming the Rocky Mountains.
When my family made that trip a half-century ago, Alaska and Hawaii were new states admitted to the union only the year before. The United States now reached halfway across the Pacific, and yet in 1960 it still thought of itself as a continental nation, stretching from sea to shining sea. Nevertheless, if you were a Hawaiian, you thought of the continental United States as "the mainland." And if you were an Alaskan, it was "the lower 48." The term lower 48 always rang a bell for me, signifying as it did the contiguous 48 states that completed the temperate zone of North America between Canada and Mexico. Arizona was the 48th state, admitted to the union only in 1912. Until then, and throughout the 19th century, ever since the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, American presidents administered the West or parts of it as imperial overlords: governing places as territories that were not as yet states.
Indeed, the entire operating myth of American nationhood has had an east-to-west orientation. America's continental geography was perfectly appointed for gradual westering settlement. The original 13 colonies huddled around many natural, deep-water Atlantic harbors, with the Appalachians as a western boundary. Passes through the Appalachians enabled the pioneers to enter the Midwest, where a flat panel of rich farmland -- and the back-breaking labor required for it to bear crops, and to clear the forests on it -- ground down the various North European immigrant communities into a distinctive American culture. By the time the water-starved Great Plains and the Rockies beckoned forth another generation of settlers, the Transcontinental Railroad was at hand to complete the story of nation-building unto the Pacific.
Of course, the Rockies emblemized this whole saga: their sheer beauty and majesty helped make Americans feel that they were a special people, ordained to do great things; the utter height of these mountains provided settlers with the supreme logistical challenge. The Rockies are a signal example of how a physical environment can mold a people's character.
In fact, had the United States been settled from west to east, from California directly into the water-starved tableland of Nevada and Arizona, it is possible that the country would have begun as an oligarchy or some such authoritarian regime, in order to strictly administer water rights. This is partly the background to such great books of sea to shining sea nationhood as Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian(1954) and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert (1986). In a larger sense, the story of earning the Rockies is chronicled in such epics as Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains (1931) and Bernard DeVoto's lyrical trilogy of westward expansion, The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947) and The Course of Empire (1952). DeVoto wrote those books during World War II and some of the darkest days of the Cold War. Yet, by concentrating on the Rocky Mountains and all that they represented, he told Americans why they were great. DeVoto's prose, like the music of Stephen Foster -- of which DeVoto writes about so eloquently -- catches at dead center the very energy of Manifest Destiny.
DeVoto, repeating Henry David Thoreau's dictum, advised Americans that, metaphorically, they "must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe." DeVoto never left North America his whole life. He was not an isolationist but a geopolitical thinker who understood the continental basis of American power.
That continental basis is subtly shifting. I may be of the last generation that sees the United States in terms of its east-to-west historic geography of Manifest Destiny. Americans today do not take horses or trains, drive, ride buses or hitchhike across the continent. They fly. Our airports have been the new bus stations. Americans no longer experience the exhilaration of seeing the front range of the Rockies after crossing the flat prairie and Great Plains. They experience much less the regional diversity of the United States, as McDonald's and Starbucks deface the urban landscape. Our towns and small cities with their refreshing provincial aura have been transformed into vast, suburban conurbations, each integrally connected to the global economy. Cosmopolitanism is no longer restricted to the coasts. That is a good thing, even as something special has been lost.