The Heart and Soul of America

If you had to choose one place in the United States that you felt all Americans should visit, one landscape or landmark representative of the “American ethos”, what would it be?

I started pondering that question last week after reading a piece in the great gardening e-mag Garden Drum. The article’s Australian author, Catherine Stewart, writes of her pilgrimage to Uluru (more familiar to us as Ayers Rock), the giant monolith located smack dab in the middle of the Australian continent.

Stewart describes the spiritual significance of Uluru for the indigenous people of Australia, but emphasizes that the great rock is equally revered by “non-indigenous” Australians, and even describes Uluru as an Australian Mecca, a place that many Australians feel they must see at least once in their lifetimes.

So this got me to thinking…does America have such a place? Is there some iconic landmark out there that stands above all the others as a representative of our nation’s soul and character?  Is there an American Uluru?

Many places came to mind. Sadly, the first one that popped into my head was Disneyworld, since I actually hear people talk about the Magic Kingdom as though it were some sort of Holy Land. Some folks are shocked to hear that I’ve never been there, and are positively horrified to learn that I have no plans to take my kid there, either. (He still doesn’t know Disneyworld exists, nor does he know about Chuck E. Cheese. And I am fine with that.)

Anyway, the Grand Canyon would be a contender, I suppose. Certainly it’s an awe-inspiring bit of geology and a vacation destination for many Americans. The Brady Bunch even went there for three episodes (remember, Bobby and Cindy got lost in the canyon and were led to safety by an Indian boy? Classic!) But, I don’t know….I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the “quintessential” American landscape, or representative of “the American character” if such a thing exists.

Another place that occurs to me is Alaska. When I visited Alaska back in 1997, it overwhelmed me, it took my breath away. Alaska is immense, frighteningly beautiful, and still truly wild. And I do believe that “wildness” has been an important influence on the American identity.

But Alaska is so far away from most Americans — both geographically and psychologically — that I’m not sure it could ever be an “American Mecca.”

What I’ve concluded is that the iconic American landscape isn’t necessarily a giant canyon or a towering peak or any bit of extreme natural splendor, which we are certainly blessed to have in spades. 

Rather, I think we need to look, as the Australians do, toward our nation’s interior.

I believe that every American should experience the Great Plains at least once in his or her lifetime.

Of course, a flyover wouldn’t count. I’m not even sure going by train would be good enough. You have to go by car, at your own pace, either by yourself or with just a couple of others. You have to pull off the interstate from time to time onto a dirt road and immerse yourself in the corn and/or wheatfields that surround you.

You have to try to take in the giant sky, and the clouds, and the wind sweeping across the grasses.

My dad and me in South Dakota, 1990.

So many of us are huddled on the coasts in big packs and have never truly experienced Wide Open Space. We often dismiss the Great Plains and the Midwest, maybe giving it a nod for its agricultural contribution and that’s about it. Maybe you did a project about Westward Expansion or Lewis and Clark back in grade school (mine was a covered wagon made out of a Diamond matchbox) but haven’t thought about the Plains states much since then.

A co-worker of mine rode cross-country on his motorcycle this summer and came back to DC with a deep reverence for the Plains states. He said, “when you’re out there, you can kind of understand why they [the residents of the Plains] don’t want to have much to do with the government or the big cities. You feel totally on your own out there, and resent anybody trying to tell you how to live.”

When I was in my teens and twenties, I took many trips across the Great Plains with my father and brother. One time, we made a pitstop in the middle of the Kansas prairie and my dad and brother thought they’d play a cute trick on me. They said they were just going to turn the car around (it was a narrow dirt road) to aim it back toward the highway, but they actually drove away and left me standing there, all alone.

Now, I knew they were coming back, but as the car disappeared behind a puff of dust, the weirdest, loneliest feeling came over me. I am an Easterner, used to dense settlement and limited views, so the expansiveness of my surroundings really hit home in that moment. The golden fields and the blue sky were beautiful, yes, but it was the feeling of space and infinity and aloneness that really dazzled me. That, and the clean, warm air and the clouds like leviathans overhead.

I have to say, I felt a stronger sense of transcendence in that Kansas prairie than on any of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, which was where we were headed. In fact, that moment of golden aloneness remains, to this day, one of my most vivid travel memories.

Traveling through the Great Plains not only puts you back in touch with America’s history and its agricultural heritage, it reminds you that there are still places that seem to be unbounded, places where you can truly be alone under a wide sky. This, to me, is quintessentially American.

What do you all think? If you were to choose the iconic American landscape, what would it be?

52 thoughts on “The Heart and Soul of America

    • Thank you, Chad. I have to say, I was rather underwhelmed by Mt. Rushmore when I visited there many years ago, though the story of the sculptor was really inspiring. The Black Hills of South Dakota, where Mt. Rushmore is located, I found extremely beautiful.

  1. I think you got it. I was thinking maybe America is too diverse to have a prototypical landscape, but when I saw the words “the Great Plains” I knew that was it. It’s an even richer and more deeply appropriate symbol when you think of the lost prairies that used to be there. Great post.

  2. I’m here already, in the center of the country, where the tallgrass prairie and the shortgrass prairie used to quarrel over their common boundary. Both are rarin’ to come back whenever humans get out of the way.

    Out this way don’t miss the Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, huge acreage of restored prairie and a herd, yes, a herd of bison.

      • Interesting that you should say that, Mary! I’ve heard that from several different people in different locations. Once, several years ago, I walked up to the rental counter at a car rental agency and after a few minutes the man that I was talking to there said, “I’ll bet you’re from the Midwest.” I told him I was, and he said, “I knew it. Midwesterners are so friendly.” That kinda made my day. 🙂

  3. Mary G.,

    A beautifully reflective and insightful post. You make an excellent case for the Great Plains being the heart of America both literally and metaphorically. My dad and I just returned from a transcontinental trip by train, and I was more impressed with the plains (upon reflection and after reading your thoughts) than I was with the Rockies (disregard what I wrote at the time on Biscuit City. Thank you for such thoughtful and persuasive writing!

  4. I have never taken my kids to Disneyland either, and (call me a snob) I’m proud to say they have no desire to go. And I agree about the Prairie! My mother grew up in South Dakota and I live in Illinois – the Prairie State. In my mind’s eye the Prairie is the center of the country, with all the other parts built up along its periphery. Although I sometimes think the real heart of America is California, with its migrants and high speed melting pot, it’s newness and disregard for tradition – except for the tradition of trend setting.

    • Interesting perspective on California. As much as I love that state I do not see it as typical of “real” America at all. I think it’s because Hollywood is there, with all its celebrities and papparazzi and excesses and such. That said, I know that most Californians are probably pretty normal folks.

  5. Nice post Mary. I grew up on the High Plains of western Kansas and to this day (some 54 years later) I enjoy every trip back to see family. You spoke of the expansiveness of the surroundings…I hope you also experienced the night skies and all the stars so bright. Holy cow! I’m thinking the Giant Sequoias in California is an equally awe-inspiring must-see as well.

    • Yes, Tim, we did see the stars! In fact, I remember on several occasions sticking our heads out the car window, being so blown away by the number of stars that we had to pull over and just stand there and stare at them. Night skies like that just don’t exist in the East.

  6. My first thought was the Grand Canyon. It took my breath away. But, the true American landscape can’t be represented by one place. Even here in Florida there is the river of grass, the palms, the ocean, mangrove swamps, crystal springs (although now not so crystal since the water level is down and so much nitrogen is washed in), hammocks, creeks, rivers, bayous, sand dunes, moss draped live oak, titi swamps. Notice how my face is turned away from strip malls, billboards, parking lots, and the ticky tacky. But wait, most of this is not what it was in 1491. Most of Florida was covered with 400 year-old plus long leaf pine, 20 per acre. You could drive a wagon through it. The last one was cut down in 1939 and shipped to Europe for buildings and boat masts. The river of grass has been drained by canals and filled with pesticides from the sugar plantations. The question could be what was the iconic American landscape. I wasn’t feeling a bit negative until I started to answer your piece. Where did that rant come from.
    Been to Disney World once. If you enjoy feeling like part of a line of cattle you’ll do just fine.

    • Carole,

      The Florida of crystal springs and grasses and mangroves that you describe is the one I long to visit. I have actually never been to Florida, but my husband wants to take a trip there this winter. I want to see Old Florida, I just hope there is enough left of it to see by the time we arrive. :o/

    • How interesting to hear you say that Carole. We’ve just had a book published here in Oz that looks at Aboriginal ‘firestick farming’, comparing early colonial paintings & records to the ‘wilderness’, thick with trees and shrubby undergrowth, that exists in many of those same locations today. We’ve assumed our wilderness was ‘natural’, but the evidence shows that strips of trees within open grasslands was the existing natural landscape here in 1788 (when white settlers arrived). Not the impenetrable eucalypt or rainforests conservationists now defend so passionately. Habitually cleared by Aboriginals for centuries, who used frequent, low-burning fires to encourage grass growth to attract game, that land management disappeared with fencing for stock & decimation of the native population. Perhaps there’s a similar long-gone land management history by native Americans in Florida?

      • Yes, I believe forests in most of the southeast, where the long-leaf pine was the dominate tree, were managed by the native inhabitants. The only old-growth long-leaf remaining are those that were in such poor soil that they produced poor lumber.

  7. I right away think of the places that the first Americans lived; Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Chaco Canyon… and there are so many others. Visiting reservations (not casinos) and interacting with the native peoples would be my suggestion

    • Of the places you list, I have only been to Mesa Verde, and it was fascinating. Selecting a place that represents the native American settlements makes sense. Sadly, reservations today are such dismal places. I remember driving through run-down small towns in Montana whose native American inhabitants were hanging around on street corners with bottles of booze, just like you’d see in any inner city. Tragic.

  8. I agree it is NOT Disney. I look at Disney’s ticky tacky portrayal of other contries at Epcot and I know I don’t want that representation! The landscape that kept coming to my mind was Manhattan or NYC. I know it is not natural but those corn fields and cow pastures aren’t really eaither. I know there are amazing citys around the world but the utter diversity of people who claim NYC as home and make the streets and spaces the frenetic melting pot really is what I think of as the symbol of our country. Friends have told me of their first visit to the US as children and it was always to NYC. Check out Central Park for a slice of the population enjoying their space. Could Olmstead have known what that park would mean to New Yorkers?

    • I think it takes a special kind of person who enjoys living in Manhattan, but NY is definitely an amazingly vibrant and diverse city. If I had to choose between living in Kansas and living in Manhattan I’m not sure which I would choose. As much as I praised the Great Plains, I’m not sure I have the temperament to live there. I am too used to having people, shops, and cars around.

    • Yes, Yellowstone occurred to me, too. The reason I didn’t pick it is because it seems like more of a collection of wonderful geological phenomena more than an iconic landscape. But certainly many Americans view it as a “must see” and I most definitely want to take my son there!

  9. I have seen the plains, the grand canyon, the Ocean and mountains of the US but the greatest site Ive ever seen (and you can’t understand this if you’ve never been) is the giant redwoods. Nothing has ever impacted me as much as walking through the giants.

  10. Definitely not Disney. As far as wide open spaces go, I do get that here on the coast, where there is to me no sensation like being in the middle of a vast salt marsh, on a deserted beach or floating in the ocean with a great dome of sky above and nothing blocking the horizon. Like you, we also drove to the Rockies a couple of summers ago, because I wanted to see the middle up close and not from an airplane window. Kansas was an eye-opener, being more beautiful than I been led to believe, especially the first half of the state. The landscape actually reminded me of the coast with the swaying grasses, and part of my brain kept expecting to crest a ridge and see the ocean. As for the second half of the state, God bless anyone willing to live there.

    My vote for American heart and soul would be the St. Louis arch, designed by an immigrant, in the middle of the country, next to our most iconic river, not natural but man-made, and fraught with symbolism.

    • That’s a good nomination, Les, and one I hadn’t thought of. And I can imagine that living on the coast must give the same feeling as the the prairie…I hadn’t thought of that either. No landscape is more infinite than the sea.

  11. Kylee,
    Thanks for a thinking piece. I grew up in the midwest and my parents drove me to state capitols every summer: IL, MO, KS, WI, MI, AR, IA, NE, CO, OK, OH, IN, etc., etc. Our drives through the wheat fields of Kansas and Nebraska stuck with me, so your selection of the Great Plains got me to thinking. Flying over the Great Plains, to my mind, also touches me. Seeing the giant irrigation circles from the air moves me greatly. And I am a Pollyanna, so the garden topiaries at Disneyworld in the spring is very much a fun trip (in spite of the crowds). I went to school in St. Louis, so the Arch is a good candidate. Any of the National Wildlife Refuges and National Parks (Redwoods, Yellowstone, Merritt Island, Everglades) are excellent candidates. We are such a diverse nation and blessed nation, that I have trouble picking any ONE icon, so I will leave you with a funny story. I was coming back from Europe and a young couple from Japan were sitting next to me. They were going to spend a few days in the U.S. and we were landing in NYC. They had a couple of unplanned days, so they thought they would fly out overnight and back to see the one place in the U.S. they HAD to see – the Grand Canyon! I had to explain to them the vastness of the U.S. and that even if they were flying to someplace close by the canyon how long it would take to get there, see it, and get back — worth every hour and day, but not an overnight trip….

  12. I loved Ian Frazier’s non-fiction book “The Great Plains”. It’s journalism, but poetic and moving and captures in many ways what you are describing here as the essence of a sense of America.

  13. Living in the south central Plains, as I do, my knee jerk answer to your question was, “The Grand Canyon.” However, when you mentioned the Great Plains, I think you may have nailed it.

    I agree with the comment by Mark Kane, recommending Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as a place to visit, but I would recommend the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City, Kansas, even more highly as a place to immerse yourself in the landscape as it appeared when the European settlers first came. Konza Prairie, near Manhattan, Kansas, is fantastic, too, but functions as much or more as a research site than as a public venue celebrating the prairie.

    Great post!

  14. Identifying a single place as the iconic American landscape is a difficult task – almost impossible because of the diversity amongst our icons. I never would have thought about the Great Plains if asked that question, but I am very persuaded by your reasoning. I also strongly agree with you that we have such an abundance of diverse icons here. Alaska, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Death Valley, the Everglades, the Appalachians, etc., are all so very different that I would think to differentiate our icons by a variety of factors like terrain, climate, geographical location, plant communities, etc. Even then, when I compare two places that would more or less fall into the same or similar categories (eg. Death Valley and the Grand Canyon), I would not be able to say that one is more identifiably American than the other.

    But then I read about your personal experience in the Great Plains and everything falls into place. I begin to understand. It’s the personal identification with place that makes each location meaningful, and sharing those experiences with others is important for describing the richness of the diverse American landscape. The experience you had when your dad and brother left you in a field sounds a lot like the experience I’ve felt alone amongst the sights, smells, and sounds of the Jeffrey pines and big basin sage in the Sierras – and both are similar to experiences others have had elsewhere in different terrains (I’m thinking Muir, Thoreau, Edward Abbey, as well as those whose stories we’ve never heard). Isn’t this what the pioneers experienced as they ventured away from Missouri along the Oregon Trail? Miles upon miles, weeks upon weeks of feeling alone, vulnerable, and inspired amongst the wild.

    Maybe that’s another possibility? The identifiable American icon is the shared experience we feel when exposed to an American landscape: the greatness of the ominous skies, lonely fields, non-disneyfied/non-plastic experience in the wild – be it the pine forests of the mountains or the fields of wheat in the plains.

    • P.S. Great post, by the way! Thank you for getting me thinking again. My master’s thesis was on literature of the American frontier (both the literal and figurative frontier), and your post revealed something more to me about that topic that I hadn’t thought of before. (It’s also good to know that I can still think deeply about such topics. I thought my brain was turning to mush from lack of use.)

    • Great response, Gordon! You’ve brought up an even more intriguing question than the one I posted…is there something in Americans’ relationship to the land that is special, distinct from the way other cultures view nature and wilderness? I would say there is, but I would be hard-pressed to put it into words. I have to say, though, if I were ever to go back to grad school (no) this would be a pretty fun thesis to work on.

  15. What an interesting post. I thought of the Mississippi River, which has so much American history tied up around it, from prehistoric to modern times. But, having lived on the west coast most of my life, I really feel little personal connection to the river or the Great Plains, even though I realize my life as an American is inextricably tied to it through history (and my grandparents lived in St. Louis most of their lives). What I think of as the iconic American landscape and a must for citizens is to make a coast-to-coast road trip across the country, at least once in your life. Experiencing the size and scope and diversity of America can change your whole perspective about the country and the people in it (including oneself!).

    • Absolutely! That is a great suggestion — a coast to coast road trip should be required for every American! The Mississippi River is a great nomination, too….even though I didn’t grow up anywhere near it, I actually have a fondness for it from reading Mark Twain…

  16. I agree that Mount Rushmore is recognizable yet not quite iconic. Having spent time camping in the Black Hills, however, I felt a spirit of wildness there that was calming yet awe-inspiring. Because remnants of Native American culture is still present there, I feel a bit of loss when I am there as well. I think of Devil’s Tower and a heap of potatoes under Richard Dreyfuss’ and the soul of fecund nature in its own order. As an Iowan, I’m used to coast-dwellers feigned interest in the middle land, but I love your story and love your blog. As for open sky, I still think Wyoming wins, but I love seeing stars from the car when I visit my Dad in northeast Iowa

    • Oh my goodness, Anne. I had not thought of Richard Dreyfuss and his potato tower in soooo long. I LOVE that movie. I loved visiting the Devil’s Tower also, but I was even more enamored by all the prairie dog towns that were scattered around in the vicinity. Thanks for your compliments!

  17. Glacier National Park just ‘looks’ like Wild America, then there is Mesa Verde National Park–what could be more “prototypical” than what are essentially seven-hundred-year-old apartment buildings? But for the prototypical vernacular American Landscape, I’d have to go with either Blue Tarp Farm or Disused Play Structure. You’ll find one or the other, if not both, in every neighborhood.

    • Oh dear, Calvin…feeling cynical today, eh? I actually got through all of my son’s preschool years without bringing any colorful plastic play structures or vehicles into my yard. I consider it my greatest accomplishment as a parent so far. (That or I’m just a giant snob.) :o/

      • Living where the Xeric Hardpan Forest and Swamp Forest Bog Complex come together makes one feel that way, sometimes…I tried mightily to avoid the Disney Industrial Complex also, but Princess Creep began with the Grandparent Gateway and became unavoidable.

  18. Having seen pretty much the entire coutry i’d have to agree with you. After all don’t politicians always refer to midwestern folk as “real Americans” (because you know, the states where our nation was born can’t possibly be real). I love driving through the dakotas, especially north dakota. It’s so calming in a weird way (until i realize i can’t see any buildings and the agoraphobia sets in…).

    • I’ve always resented the implication that I am not a “real” American because I’m from a coastal region. Us coasters are every bit as real (not to mention we outnumber midwesterners).

      • Tom may have been sarcastic, but I still resent it when politicians suggest one has to be a midwestern, country folks to be real Americans.

        I don’t think there is a single landscape to represent our whole nation. Personally, as a person acustomed to mountains, oceans, and forests, I think plains are kind of weird. 😉

  19. Really interesting discussion… I’ve just returned from my first ever trip to the US, which included a 5 day backcountry hike in Yosemite. I truly didn’t expect to love Yosemite, I thought it would be a bit too much ‘crags and conifers’ for my liking, but it was the most amazing experience. We have beautiful countryside in the UK, but we don’t have wilderness like I experienced there. Backpacking takes you through a landscape at a slow, sometimes painful, pace. You see the detail as well as the big picture, and Yosemite was rich in detail, as well as vast in overall scale. Evidence of the wild inhabitants was very apparent, from the black bear scat to the coyotes howling and yipping at night. The night skies appeared almost burdened by stars. In the mornings the tent was coated with frost, and an hour or two later the sun was hot in an intensely blue clear sky. The air was thin and pure, and colours so intense that you felt as if you had just been granted newly enhanced powers of sight. We walked through high meadows, across expanses of granite smoothed and scored by glaciers, swam in silent lakes and were constantly accompanied by trees in every stage of living, dying and decomposition.

    It was interesting what Gordon wrote about the quintessential American landscape reflecting the pioneer’s experience of it – feeling often small, lost, afraid, but also seeing the opportunity and the challenge. I would like to read more from this time, but remember as a child reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about living in these remote environments and they made a big impression on me.

    One point I would make is that visiting a place by car can never replicate the experience of visiting it on foot, and preferably walking through it for a considerable time, sleeping and waking it in. On our first day in Yosemite we did day walks and drove around and the feeling was completely different – it’s much more difficult to really connect with a place when you are not immersed in its sounds, smells, feeling its textures, being confronted with its terrain and vegetation.

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