First Thoughts: The Trip West
HILLSBORO, OR – June 20, 2018
On the long road trip to my starting point from Brooklyn, I made visits to all the tourist ports-of-call along the way, some popular and some isolated, some magnificent to behold and some hard to find. Two of these stops were in the western half of South Dakota – a state with a very low population (869,666) and very high speed limit (80 m.p.h.)
The first was a well-visited and well-known tourist spot and civic attraction: Mount Rushmore. The second was more, shall we say, off the beaten path – a spot in the middle of a South Dakota prairie, 7.8 miles down a dirt road, remarkable for no other reason than that it is the geographic center of the United States. As I begin my exploration of county courthouses in earnest, I think on both of these visits as profoundly distinct and interesting ways of interacting with place in the United States of America
A visit to Mount Rushmore resembles a visit to a religious institution – a civic church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or what have you. Each evening during the summer months, there is a public program followed by an illumination of the presidents’ faces on the mountain. This program begins with a sermon-like address from a park ranger, musing on the purposes of each visitor’s pilgrimage and the special meaning of the site. It then features a patriotic video about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt – the scripture of American history. It concludes with the national anthem and a salute to all veterans and military service members present – a display of patriotism, religious and sacred in nature.
A visit to the center of the nation, though, resembles a visit to an academic research library – you are one of the few who go there because you are enough of a nerd to care. First alerted to the existence of such a spot by Dan Barry’s “In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation’s Center,” published in the New York Times in 2008 and read by me in a political science course in 2018, I made the destination a must-see on our journey. The spot is profoundly and deeply underwhelming – a single flag and geographic marker, in a field of grass and flies, past a barbed wire fence, down a remote dirt road jutting off an already-remote highway leading from an already-remote part of the nation. One appreciates it solely for the fact it is something so grand – the very center of the nation, for crying out loud – in a place takes a fair measure of devotion to find.
One interacts with these civic sites in strikingly different ways. Mount Rushmore is the religious site of every believer, the place so many Americans go to connect with what they see as their own American identity, vested in a sacralized patriotism and historical imagination. The center of the nation is the obscure pilgrimage site of the devoted, valued only by those who somehow see the beauty in such an outwardly, well, boring site. As this journey through the nation’s courthouses begins, I wonder what these places will be. Are courthouses a civic temple, a place for each and every American to worship the ideals of justice? Are they reserved for the select few who contact them, whether by interest, vocation, or necessity, largely obscure and boring to anyone else? Or are they something else entirely? When Americans say, “I’ll see you in court,” or “I’ll take you to court,” or “I’ll have my day in court,” where, exactly, are they referencing?