Friday, June 3, 2016
Can we bring our divided continent back together?
“What is the Continental Divide?” my wife said.
A natural question. We were standing Tuesday at the “Continental Divide Overlook” at Eldorado Canyon State Park in Colorado. I wish language allowed me to convey the view — even a photograph would fall short. A sweeping, 50- mile wide panorama, starting, to the left, with the snow-capped Rockies, unfolding through pined mountainsides, distant valleys and rock gorges that set me pondering a possible connection between “gorge” and “gorgeous.”
I puffed the dust off my high school geology. “It refers to drainage,” I said. “The Rocky Mountains form a ridge, north and south. A drop of rain falling on the west side will, eventually, make its way to the Pacific Ocean. On the east, to the Atlantic.”
Hiking back down, the words “continental divide,” echoed in my head in a way that has nothing to do with hydrology. The United States is one of the few nations on earth that spans a continent. And we sure are divided, big time.
What divides us? Race, class, religion. Politics form the most gaping division right now. The differences are sharper than ever, with the Republicans firmly anti-government, pro-business, anti-immigrant, pro-white, anti-gay, pro-religion, anti-women (though they would argue they support women by making their difficult moral choices for them). And the Democrats pretty much the opposite.
The Republicans offer up presidential candidate Donald Trump, an unstable amateur who has never run for public office. And the Democrats are assembling, in typical, shambolic, herding cats fashion, behind Hillary Clinton, the former senator, former secretary of state. Not to forget Bernie Sanders tagging along, a nagging reminder that even our divisions have divisions.
You'd think a few miles on Rattlesnake Gulch Trail would be the perfect place to forget all this. But days into my supposed vacation, I had Trump on the brain. I found myself snapping photos of canyon walls and tweeting them with the caption, "It ain't Donald Trump that makes America great." The media was accused of focusing on Trump too much—I disagree, it's called "reporting the news"—but now that he has a scarily real chance of becoming the president of the United States, it's the responsibility of every patriotic American to point a quivering finger at his latest horror and scream, "Noooooo!!!"
This might be naive. We are so polarized, no one switches loyalty, no matter what. I sincerely believe that Donald Trump could go on television and drown a litter of puppies—really cute, golden retriever puppies—one by one, serving their damp little bodies into the audience with a tennis racquet, and his fans would shrug and explain that's just Donald being Donald, sticking it to the old, drowning-puppies-is-bad establishment.
Getting to nature is beneficial, the chief benefit being you realize how big, old, and indifferent the earth is to all our striving. Or to quote my favorite Park Service warning sign, "The mountains don't care."
So we have to care. And the main question we need to care about is this: Do all these divisions matter more than the one thing that unites us? And that one thing, in case you don't know, and many seem not to, is that we are all living here, all Americans, together, on our respective slopes of our Great Divide.
A year after 9/11, some grew nostalgic for the sense of shared purpose the attacks brought. We wondered when we might feel that again—maybe if space aliens attacked, we could band together again. But we don't need aliens for our way of life be threatened. We do that already. Nobody can hurt us like we can hurt ourselves. Even after Trump is—please God—defeated, the division will remain. We will realize that Trump wasn't a cause, but a symptom. We have proved ourselves very good at falling apart. It's getting back together, bridging this continental divide, that is the trick. We're the United States, remember. The founders put it in our name. So we wouldn't forget.