America the Enormous

A good friend sent me last week this highly entertaining post from Jalopnik, which details one man’s attempt to break the record for the fastest drive across the United States.* [SPOILER] He appears to have succeeded, making the journey in 28 hours and 50 minutes. I read that, and was duly impressed. I thought about how lucky he must have been to avoid being pulled over, I thought about all the insect families now pasted to the front of his car. But mostly I thought about how enormous America is.

America is freaking enormous. Google Maps’ shortest (by mileage) route from New York to Los Angeles estimates a travel time of 40 hours, and that doesn’t even include the additional ~6oo miles it would take if you started from America’s easternmost point. Even without counting Alaska and Hawaii it’s the 5th largest country in the world. The now record-holding driver averaged 98mph for the duration of his trip, and it still took him more than an entire day of nonstop driving to make it.

This enormousness is fairly inescapable if you travel within the United States at all, but it’s a feature I think is lost on a lot of Europeans who comment from afar.** And I think if they recognized it, we might take a little less flak for our supposed insularity. Actually, there are two other good reasons for this perception’s persistence, but they don’t relate directly to geography, so you’ll have to read the footnotes for them.***

That Americans are insular is an overwhelmingly common assertion. A Google search for the phrase, “Americans are insular”, (though admittedly executed without quotation marks) brings up well over a million results.  Meeting classmates from all over Europe during my semester “on Erasmus”, I was frequently asked, “Why do you Americans know nothing about the world?”, or some variation on that question. But what the people asking those questions, or asserting American insularity, clearly lack, is an appreciation for the enormousness so viscerally demonstrated by the record-breaking driver.

In a European context, driving from New York to Los Angeles is more or less the same as driving from the southern tip of Italy to the very top of Norway, or from Lisbon all the way to the very edge of Estonia. A drive that keeps you entirely within the United States would, in Europe, have you pass through up to nine different countries. In much of Europe, a four hour drive gets you to at least one border; in my home state, a four hour drive might not even have you leave it, let alone cross an international border. And it’s only the 43rd largest. From the middle of the United States you can go almost 1000 miles in any direction and still not leave the country. For an American born and raised on the East Coast, traveling to San Francisco is the geographic equivalent of an Estonian going to Andalucia.

So where a European would have to try not to leave the country and engage with foreigners, most Americans have to actively try to do so just by virtue of where we are. And this has obvious effects in areas more substantial than simply acquiring passport stamps; it’s pretty hard to experience another culture (and gain all the attendant benefits from doing so) when the nearest one is liable to be at least 1000 miles away. It’s not that we’re insular, it’s that it’s damn costly to leave.

*Technically from New York to Los Angeles, but close enough, I guess
**The majority of my experience with this phenomenon has come with Europeans, but that could easily be a result of selection bias; it’s just that I’ve done most of my traveling there
***One explanation is financial; my guess is that, historically anyway, the set of Americans who could afford to travel included comparatively more people of worse education. The second may actually have some proper substance; as citizens of  one of the most powerful states of the 20th century, the costs of insularity, such as they are, were lower