Crossing America’s heart
PLAXICO Burress, the wide receiver for the New York Giants, scored the winning touchdown in the recent Super Bowl, slipping past his opponent and running right to the corner of the scoring zone to catch the beautifully lofted pass from his quarterback. With only 35 seconds left on the clock, the game was won. In the few moments before he was engulfed by teammates, Burress marked the occasion as only a 195cm, 105kg Giant might. He clutched the football to his chest, knelt down on one knee and bowed his head. He prayed.
Of course many societies have sports stars who praise the Lord in public. But in Journeys , Don Watson makes a compelling case that in the US religion — specifically, evangelical Christianity — is ‘‘ in the front lines of just about everything’’: football teams, judicial appointments, rodeos, elections, combat forces in Iraq, radio talkback, and the White House.
Watson sees religion at the forefront of the bungled relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where in the absence of federal agencies it was the teams of evangelical volunteers who handed out the food and blankets. Along with private companies that competed for Katrina reconstruction contracts, the churches saw the opportunity, as Watson points out, for new business.
And religion is certainly at the forefront in Colorado Springs, where, with a population of 350,000, Watson identifies more than 80 different religious organisations operating hundreds of places of worship: Catholic and mainstream Protestant; a dozen Assemblies of God; two dozen Charismatic; nine Churches of God in Christ; another 20 Nazarenes and Pentecostals; plus James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Ted Haggard’s New Life Church.
Historian ( Caledonia Australis ), Paul Keating speechwriter and biographer ( Recollections of a Bleeding Heart ), and anti- jargon campaigner ( Death Sentence ), Watson has now turned to travel writing, undertaking for this book a quirky personal survey of contemporary America by train, or at least of those parts of the country still serviced by Amtrak; the rest he fills out by rental car.
His itinerary, apparently quite random, crisscrosses a huge rectangle of heartland defined approximately by Ohio and Oregon, New Mexico and Georgia, including a nameless spot in Arkansas that is ‘‘ a sort of town that seemed to be more of a car park than anything else’’. He discovers Chattanooga has no train service. He avoids New England and the Atlantic coast entirely, is more excited by Omaha than New York, and sees a huge illuminated cross on the night skyline outside Crump, Tennessee. He listens to a lot of talkback radio.
Watson chose train travel because it offered him ‘‘ a way of peering into the United States like a woodworm boring a tiny groove in the bark of the republic’’, and in making this unfashionable choice he joins a respected genre of travel writing: the amiable but sharp- eyed narrator moving unhurriedly through the heartland of a foreign country.
Alexis de Tocqueville pioneered the genre with Democracy in America ( 1835). Australian journalist Robert Haupt did a Russian version 10 years ago, floating down the Volga in Last Boat to Astrakhan .
The key to the genre is to get beyond the big cities. Avoid the celebrities. Observe the real people with their private faces on. Watson certainly passes this test.
He meets no national politicians, talks almost exclusively to train passengers, and overhears mobile phone conversations galore, scribbling them down in the guise of writing postcards.
So what did he see and hear? At one level there is the reminder that America, even obscure parts of the hinterland, is so familiar to us through movies and popular music. When he arrives in Oklahoma, Watson sings the musical. In Wyoming, his map ‘‘ reads like an old TV guide; after Cheyenne I thought I’d see Laramie’’. ( Sadly, he visits Abilene but fails to croon the George Hamilton classic). At another level, there is the realisation of profound difference. Australians have cause to regret the heartless treatment of the Stolen Generations; but it is hard to see how an apology might redress the wholesale slaughter Americans have inflicted on each other.
Watson cites general William Tecumseh Sherman, veteran of the Seminole Wars against the Native Americans in Florida, who after scorching the earth of Georgia during the Civil War and burning Atlanta to the ground, then went back to fighting Indians. He comments: ‘‘ There’s violence in Sherman’s photo. Sherman’s is the face of the United States in its military action. ‘ Shock and awe’ might be traced to Sherman.’’
If there is a face of military Australia, it might be hard like John Monash, or weary like Edward Dunlop, but hardly violent.
Watson says he first appreciated the paradox of the US back in the 1960s as a student radical. Vicious white mobs in the south were American, but so were Martin Luther King and the freedom marchers. Slave- owning Jefferson was American. The most articulate critics of America were American. ( He also states Neil Young is American, but Canadians are used to that.)
‘‘ On the United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch,’’ he admits, and the paradox provides the tension that holds his book together, just as the complex interplay of religion, patriotism, capitalism and the frontier, each offering a different form of liberty, are held together in tension as integral parts of the ‘‘ one nation under God’’.
As he listens first to the shock jocks congratulating American troops on killing a certain number of the enemy — ‘‘ they sound like voices from an earlier civilisation, from the crusades or Rome, or like al- Qa’ida’’ — and then listens to the talkback ‘‘ jammed with people wanting to talk about their feelings, their pain, their sympathy, their love, their wish for closure’’, he concludes: ‘‘ The United States is like a marshmallow: soft and downright gooey on the inside, toasted to titanium hardness on the outside.’’ Perhaps Watson spends too long listening to the radio. On the surface his narrative at times seems no more than a series of anecdotes, amusing but inconsequential. But gradually, pointillist- style, the grabs of conversation and glimpses of backyards and prairies accumulate into a portrait of a great and complex society, admirable and terrible in equal parts. Stephen Mills is the author of The Hawke Years: The Story from the Inside.
Unfashionable choice: Don Watson did most of his travelling through the US by train