Posted by: George | July 11, 2010

Talking to Larry in Yellowstone

July 11, 2010 (morning)

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck doesn’t seem to have very many long conversations. He talks to people when he is asking for directions. Occasionally, a land owner will ask him what he thinks he’s doing on his stretch of God’s earth. Steinbeck always offers the landowner a cup of coffee with a little whiskey in it. This always earns him a night’s stay. Beyond this, Steinbeck drinks with some old friends at Johnny Garcia’s bar in Monterey, and he argues with his Republican sisters about politics.

He does have a long conversation with a family in Idaho. I think it’s Idaho. He stayed in one of their cabins so he can get a bath. He’s the person in their resort, so they ask him to dinner. Over dinner, Steinbeck learns the family’s son wants to be hairdresser in New York City. In his book, Steinbeck recounts dialogue over dinner, during which he presents the father with extended arguments that support the son’s dream. I am a little skeptical about this dialogue. It seems more like what Steinbeck wish he had said, and it sounds a little like the constructed dialogue he later has with Charley.

I am, like Steinbeck, an introvert, so it is hard for me to start up a conversation with a stranger. Most of my conversations have also been pretty short.

A couple of nights ago, camping in Yellowstone, I did spend about two hours talking to Larry, a retired school teacher from California. He has a small Airstream trailer. A beautiful little home on wheels. Larry and his wife were returning from an Airstream rally where they spent time with hundreds of other Airstream enthusiasts.

Larry saw my Arkansas license plate. He grew up in a small town about 40 miles west of Memphis. In a campground, license plates are great conversation starters.

We stood around my campfire, didn’t sit, and talked about teaching, kids, traveling around, autobiographies, and many other topics. Mostly, we talked about National Parks. I couldn’t tell you anything about his religion, politics, or pet peeves. What did I learn about Larry? He seems like a good man who had a good career and is now having a good retirement. America has been pretty good to him. And we got along really well, thanks to that Arkansas license plate and the National Park system.

As I travel around, one thing that I wanted to find out is how we could come together as a nation. I am, as Whitman was when he wrote Democratic Vistas, disturbed about the divisions in our country. If you listen to talk radio, all you hear is anger and resentment. This seem to be arguments about place. I am sitting here in my place, and that guy over there has a bigger place. I want a bigger place, too.

I didn’t hear anything like this is Yellowstone. The National Parks and the National Forests may very well be one of America’s best ideas. It might be one of the ideas that can bring us together.

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