On a sunny morning in early August, we hit the road in our minivan, headed due east along Interstate 90 on an historical and cultural tour of the U.S., aiming to capture a memorable glimpse of what history and culture America has sown over the past two to three centuries.
First intended stop: Bitterroot Valley, Montana. Having read so much about Montana in Jared Diamond's Collapse
, I had great expectations about the picturesque drive south from Missoula into the Bitterroot Valley. However, as luck would have it, forest fires raged to the south in the dry summer heat, forcing us to make a U-turn back north. Our kids marveled at the sight of helicopters hovering above the river to refill water tanks to douse the wild flames dancing beside the highway, but our enjoyment of the panoramic view of the mountain-rimmed Valley will have to wait. Lesson: Beware our fragile environment and man's impact on it.
Onto Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota: The symbolic faces of Presidents Washington (courage), Jefferson (dreams), Lincoln (freedom) and T. Roosevelt (greatness) carved into the mountainside impressively capture the American spirit. However, incessant tourist traffic and crowded facilities (especially with swarms of Harley-Davidson bikers participating in the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, outnumbering cars by a ratio of about five to one) detract from the inspiration and grandeur of the monument. Of counter-cultural interest: A few miles from Mt. Rushmore is the Crazy Horse monument, commemorating the American Indian's brave struggle against the U.S. government's militia, throwing into question the validity of America's "victory" in taming the Western wilderness and "civilizing" its native people.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota: We arrived at the park just before dusk, a wonderful time of day to enjoy nature's palette of pastels illuminating the walls of the desolate canyons eroded by wind and rain over the centuries. Off on the horizon we spotted majestic dark-haired behemoths, soon confirmed to be buffalo when we were forced to stop our car to allow the other half of the herd to cross the dirt road in front of us. Recommendation: Badlands is worth a visit, to get a sense of the timelessness of nature and cheer the return of the once-endangered big bison.
An unplanned stop: Wall, South Dakota. Lured by literally hundreds of billboards along I-90 advertising a drugstore selling everything under the South Dakotan sun, we pulled into Wall to find a town dominated by Wall Drug, a super-store occupying the entire central block of the downtown, like a Wal-Mart that decided to stay local (though, of course, no connection between Wall and the "Wal" in Wal-Mart). Opinion: Very touristy but a noteworthy example of the power of traditional advertising.
Omaha, Nebraska: This is the first large city we spent the night in on our drive east. Warren Buffet's house may be modest by billionaires' standards, but it sits in a very comfortable, well-established neighborhood beside downtown Omaha. A guidebook describes Omaha as having more millionaires per capita than any other big city--there is more wealth behind the private doors than meets the public's eye. Inspiration: If two boys from the outskirts of traditional America, one from Seattle (Gates) and the other from Omaha (Buffet), can become the world's #1 and #2 wealthiest people during their lifetimes, there's no stopping anyone from any place with the acumen and determination to accomplish the same herculean feat.
Iowa: An economic novelty--quality vs. price inversion: In towns beside the cornfields, mid-grade gas (90 octane rating) is priced a few cents per gallon cheaper than regular (87 octane). How can this be? In the Midwest, mid-grade gas has 10% ethanol, which must come from surplus crops (corn?) in the region. Apparently the blended fuel results in a higher grade yet cheaper product than its pure petroleum-based counterpart.
South Bend, Indiana: South Bend's claim to fame is its history as manufacturing home of Studebaker cars--until the 1960s, when the company finally closed its doors, presumably folding to competitive pressure from the Fords and Chevies of the world. The company's defeat in business, however, surely followed many very successful decades of rolling out newer and better vehicles, from buggy to automobile, as evidenced by an old Studebaker horse-driven carriage we ran across in a museum in Sundance, Wyoming (incidentally, this is the town in (appropriately named) Crook County from which the Sundance Kid (Harry A. Longabaugh) took his alias following his early run-in with the law for stealing a horse). Today, South Bend is a tired manufacturing town, with an unspoken, unpainted line separating poorer black neighborhoods on the west side from more affluent white areas on the east side. Homework: Studebaker's rise and fall would be an interesting case study for anyone interested in the "whys" of business success and failure.
New York City, New York: Some nostalgia for me here, walking by One New York Plaza at the southern tip of Manhattan, where I began my former Wall Street career as a first-year investment banking associate two decades ago. New York City's dynamic buzz continues to put it in a class of its own. NYC is a locus of 21st century American history and culture in the making! Our walking tour included paying tribute to Ground Zero victims, pizza in Little Italy, a Broadway play and a visit to the Met. An interesting distraction in Washington Square was earning $3 by filling out a moral judgment survey (to passively "do nothing" and let a train kill five people or to actively pull a switch and have the train kill a single innocent bystander instead, i.e., five accidental deaths or one intentional death?--that is the moral dilemma) to assist Princeton ethics researchers.
Boston, Massachusetts: Central Boston with its sites along the Freedom Trail is the most historical of American cities. Costumed actors at attractions in Boston, Plymouth, Lexington and Concord take us back in time to early colonial days (we even encountered Henry David Thoreau at the Old Manse, a house in Concord where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson once lived, close to where "the shot heard around the world" was fired and Paul Revere began his "midnight ride"). On a kid-friendly tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, we sampled a thousand years of European art and its changing subject, from a flat Medieval triptych of mother and child flanked by saints, to a glossy Renaissance painting depicting a moment of revelation with Achilles in drag, to a roomful of iconoclastic Impressionists rejecting the classical historicism of their time. Opinion: Being a tourist in Boston is pleasant and, with Harvard and MIT across the river in Cambridge, the area is an enviable haven of higher education, but I suspect that more forward-looking cities may be more interesting places for most of us to live when we are neither tourists nor students.
Washington, D.C.: The usual attractions along the Mall--White House, Capitol Building, Washington Monument--and flight simulator rides at the National Air and Space Museum to entertain the kids. At the National Museum of Natural History we find that Homo sapiens
is the fifteenth and highest branch of the evolutionary tree beginning with Homo erectus
. Curiosity: Where will the next rung of evolution take mankind? Or, even nearer term, what about the next beneficial mutation of a gene for the human brain? If a mutated gene 40,000 years ago triggered the blossoming of art and music and another mutation 6,000 years ago brought the invention of writing, where will the next significant genetic mutation of the brain lead us?
Hershey, Pennsylvania: Milton Hershey failed at least twice in the chocolate business before making his first million dollars around 1900 in a side business, caramel, while in his mid-40s. At that point in his candy career, he took all of his caramel profits and literally "bet the farm" on a new large-scale chocolate factory combining three ingredients--the cacao bean, sugar and fresh milk from dairy cows--to create a mass-produced chocolate that everyone could afford (similar to what Henry Ford was doing around the same time with the automobile, or what Marcel Bich did in the 1950s with the disposable Bic pen). Lesson: Success comes to those who continue to try, even after repeated failure.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: A century and a half later, we still remember what Lincoln said here ("Four score and seven years ago. . . ") in 1863 about preserving our nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." However, Lincoln's modest prediction that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here" is only partially true, i.e., the lengthy speech of eloquent orator Edward Everett who spoke just prior to President Lincoln has been all but forgotten, while Lincoln's pithy 271-word speech lives on. Aside: At the visitor information center we encountered a man who said that on the drive to Gettysburg he was telling his son about how his (i.e., the son's) uncle had an original copy of Lincoln's Gettysburg address on his bedroom wall. Who was that man in front of us in line? Answer: A brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton, since the kid signed the guestbook as Matt Rodham, and the uncle with the historical writing on the wall was none other than former President Bill Clinton.
Cahokia Mounds, Illinois: The first settlers arrived in this fertile area near the Mississippi River outside of St. Louis about the year 650. Cahokia's population saw rapid growth from about the year 1050 when ceremonial mound-building began, and later peaked at around 20,000 people before falling precipitously by the year 1400. Until 1800, when Philadelphia surpassed it in peak population, Cahokia had been the largest city in North America north of Mexico. Changing climate patterns, overhunting, deforestation, competition from nomadic tribes and disease are among the factors believed to have led to the decline and abandonment of the Cahokian city. The grassy mounds left standing today above the plains are a humble reminder that civilization can disappear just as quickly as man creates it.
Springfield, Illinois: This is the Land of Lincoln--worth a visit to get a sense of how a small-town lawyer became revered leader of our country. In front of the Illinois State Capitol are statues of long-legged, "honest Abe" and his rival in debate, the stout, fiery, "Little Giant" Stephen Douglas.
Hannibal, Missouri: Hannibal is a town that today lives in the shadow of its past glory as boyhood home of Mark Twain, with museums re-creating the adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and their gang. The town is a pleasant place to visit but even Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) himself moved away to Connecticutt and other places in his adult years. Irony: Hannibal today caters to the tourist's interest in American history and culture, while irreverent Sam Clemens advocated the antidote, progress and technology, and even bankrupted himself by over-investing in a printing machine from which profits never materialized.
Kansas: A local newspaper reports on homesteading opportunities in a small town outside of Salina, Kansas. The local government is offering $2,000 incentives to new settlers in an effort to reverse the town's declining population trend. Comment: Once a crossroads, always a crossroads?
Boulder, Colorado: Very liveable town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah: On a geologic time scale, the dinosaurs walked the face of the Earth for only a brief moment, probably disappearing following an extended drought that compromised their water and food supply. Lesson in humility: Human existence is even more feeble, so far just a flash in the pan compared to the golden age when the dinosaurs ruled.
Salt Lake City, Utah: The extensive salt flats (once part of ancient Bonneville Lake) surrounding the Great Salt Lake are impressive, as bright in the summer sun as a snow-covered lake is in the middle of winter. Posters of the Morton (not Mormon?) Salt Girl are a tell-tale sign of this company's facilities along the flats.
Boise, Idaho: Medium-sized city with a pleasant, historic downtown.
Walla Walla, Washington: We bought a 25-pound bag of Walla Walla sweet onions to share with our neighbors and friends.
Back home in Bellevue, WA, after 8,000 miles and 25 states, I now reflect on how it is so true that St. Louis looks east, while Kansas City turns west. The Mississippi River is a soft dividing line between the older, more traditional towns of the East Coast and the natural wonders and more open feel of the West. In The Innocents Abroad
, Mark Twain comments on how Europe looks backward into history and culture, while America looks ahead toward progress and technology. Whether it is Old World vs. New World, or East Coast vs. West Coast, or even historical Seattle (founded in the 1850s) vs. newer Bellevue (incorporated in 1953), the message is clear: Cities flourish, populations grow and progress occurs where people look ahead into vast possibilities rather than behind at their past achievements. Visiting historical sites offers a welcome glimpse into the past, but real history and culture are being made by forward-looking people in those cities boldly blazing a path into the boundless future.
I conclude with a generalization of the standard investment advisory disclaimer that "Past performance is no guarantee of future results": Past accomplishments by any individual, group, city, society or civilization are not necessarily an indication of future success--as evidenced by the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, Cahokians, American Indians, buffalo, Renaissance painting, Studebaker cars, and small towns in Kansas. I suspect that there might be a lesson in humility here for the likes of Hershey chocolate, the Oracle of Omaha, Wall Drug, New York City and even Homo sapiens.