Earning the Rockies
If I don’t remember my father’s name, who will?
My father’s name was Philip Alexander Kaplan. He was born in Brooklyn in 1909. I don’t recall him ever at peace with his life. I do remember him looking serene once at Valley Forge, among the oaks and maples and magnolias; clustered among the numerous birches and pine trees; and a second time among other hardwoods at Fredericksburg. These are trees I could not name when I was young but learned to identify on later visits to those hallowed sites, and to other sites on the Eastern Seaboard that the memory of my father inspired me to see. For it was only at such places, away from our immediate surroundings, that my father became real to me, and real to himself.
In particular, I remember him at Wheatland, James Buchanan’s handsome Federal-style home with the air of a southern plantation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There I peeked my chin over the protective barriers into sumptuous mid-nineteenth-century rooms, with their dark walnut desks and other antique furniture, along with the French china, glittering crystal, and gilded mirrors. Yes, I remember a grand piano there and many shadowy bookcases and lithographs. For long spans of my childhood my memory is vague, but it lights up with minute detail about what matters most to me. Wheatland, where President Buchanan lived, worked, headquartered his campaign for high office, and died, really mattered to me as a child. I was only nine, but my father in those rare moments spoke to me almost as though I were an adult, even as he was so full of tenderness.
My father laid out the fundamentals of Buchanan’s failure as president, perhaps the worst in our history: a story necessarily simplified for a nine-year-old. Of course, later in life I would fill in most of the details.
Whatever the multitude of factors in the three-way election of 1856, James Buchanan was by no means an accidental president. When he assumed office in March 1857, he appeared to have everything going for him. Arguably, no man in the country was better qualified for the task of calming the festering North-South split over slavery. He was a tall, reasonably wealthy, self-made, and imposing figure, someone who, aside from being a bachelor, was truly good at life: a former congressman, senator, minister to Russia in the Andrew Jackson administration, secretary of state in the James K. Polk administration, and minister to Great Britain in the Franklin Pierce administration; a talented and accomplished operator, a man of maneuver gifted at the fine art of compromise despite his stubbornness. He knew what buttons to push, in other words. Who else was possessed of the political savvy necessary to save the Union? Few were shrewder. Except for one thing, as it would turn out: Buchanan did not have a compass point toward which to navigate in the midst of all the deals he tried to make, and he had a distinct and fatal sympathy for the South. But mostly he was all ambition and technique without direction. Moreover, he was a literalist. He had a small vision of the Constitution and the frontier nation: he did not believe he and the federal government had the right to dictate terms to the southern states. He saw the good in both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery points of view. With his legalistic flair, he might have made a very competent president in more ordinary times; he was a disaster in extraordinary times. The country finally came apart under his watch. “It turned out, he just, ehhh, didn’t have what it takes,” a father whispered to a nine-year-old boy at Wheatland.
The basic security of the world in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has depended greatly upon the political unity of the temperate zone of North America. And that almost didn’t happen. It was my knowledge of both Buchanan’s many gifts and his abject personal failure as president—a knowledge first granted me by my father—that provided me with a deeper awareness of just how difficult making epochal decisions in the moment of crisis can be. It was this very awareness about Buchanan—how good he looked at the beginning of his administration and how bad he turned out—that always made me think later in life, Thank God we had Lincoln. What Buchanan ultimately lacked, despite his résumé, Lincoln had in abundance: character.
But Buchanan’s failure was secondary in my father’s eyes that day at Wheatland; primary was the fact that Buchanan was, nevertheless, part of the vital tapestry of American history. Therefore, he was well worth knowing about. Great presidents cannot be understood in isolation; one requires knowledge of the not-great presidents who preceded and succeeded them. Indeed, we need always to see history as a whole, we cannot appreciate the good without knowing the bad, and vice versa. This is especially true of westward expansion. Wheatland made America’s past come alive for me.
It was at a hotel in Lancaster during that same trip that my parents bought me a volume of American travel articles written in easy Reader’s Digest style, suited to my age. One story was about a family driving west and stopping for breakfast at a diner somewhere in Nebraska perhaps, on the Great Plains (or the Great American Desert as it was once known), anticipating the sight of the Rocky Mountains, where they were headed. “You have to earn the Rockies,” the father says to his wife and children, in my piercing if inaccurate childhood recollection of the story, by driving across the flat Midwest and Plains. Perhaps it was “meet the challenge of the Rockies.” In any case, earn the Rockies is a phrase that has stayed with me my whole life. It sums up America’s continental geography, the continent that Lincoln united and realized, and the significance of the Rocky Mountains as a geographical fact that should only be encountered by first crossing the Eastern Seaboard, the Middle West, and the Great American Desert, for that was the way that they were encountered in all their sudden and terrifying magnificence by European settlers and pathfinders, those who could not have known what exactly lay over the horizon.
Throughout my childhood I yearned to see mountains higher than the Appalachians. As a family, we never left the eastern states. The Rockies were just too far, and my parents simply lacked the means, though my father talked about them often. The phrase earn the Rockies helped spur me to travel, something also instilled in me by my father since I can remember.
My mother and father took me on that trip through Pennsylvania in 1962. Alaska and Hawaii had only recently been admitted to the Union. The United States back then, for a while yet, still thought of itself as only a continental nation, stretching, according to both the song and the cliché, from sea to shining sea. To this day, Alaskans refer to the rest of the country as “the Lower 48,” meaning the contiguous forty-eight states that constitute the temperate zone of North America. Arizona was the last of the Lower 48, admitted to the Union only in 1912, a little closer in time to that trip through Pennsylvania than that trip through Pennsylvania was to the moment at which I write.
America was a different country then, vaster and emptier. Valley Forge was not in the suburbs of Greater Philadelphia as it is now, nor Fredericksburg near the suburbs of Greater Washington, D.C. Food was more distinctive—with far fewer chain restaurants and grits widespread in eating facilities just south of the nation’s capital. People drove and rode buses, or hitchhiked across America—as I did in the summer of 1970—much more often than they flew. The Interstate Highway System was spanking new, and thus the Pennsylvania Turnpike and New York State Thruway constituted exotic experiences, with rest stops offering sit-down dining with waiters and waitresses. Those magical highways could transport you from the Atlantic Seaboard all the way to the very rim of the Midwest! The East Coast was much more of an adventure then than it is now. And there were few crowds anywhere.
It had its dark side, though. I remember stopping for lunch with my parents at a restaurant called Lowery’s in Tappahannock, Virginia. It was the spring of 1964, just a few months before the Civil Rights Act, and we were returning north from a visit to the Yorktown Battlefield. There was a sign at the entrance as we opened the door: “Whites Only.” I saw my parents look uneasily at each other, something that communicated fear to an eleven-year-old boy. We went inside, ate quietly, and noticed everyone glancing at us. It was clear that we were not locals and therefore not entirely welcome.
Those trips were the gemstones of my childhood. It is in the midst of recalling them that I cherish the memory of my parents the most. Returning from those trips I was able to see, as though a shocked outsider, the grainy, almost black-and-white surroundings of our home in Queens: the sooty fire escape and other blockhouse apartments were the only view from the stifling kitchen where we ate. Because of the clash between where we had been and where we lived, those early travels, I believe, burdened me with something I was never entirely comfortable with: a cruel objectivity. In the morning we had been at Wheatland seeing the feast of glittering greenery outside James Buchanan’s mansion; that same night we were back in our apartment, hearing the yelling of our neighbors in other apartments. Seeing the wider world, if only a glimpse of it, had come with a price. I learned early that comparison is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis.
My father was a truck driver with a high school education who listened to classical music on WQXR while breezing through the New York Times Sunday and weekday crossword puzzles. He had a small record collection that included the patriotic band music of John Philip Sousa and the hits of Al Jolson, mixed with a little Stephen Foster. It was music that took you from the mid-nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth, telegraphing the country’s latent dynamism as it crept toward World War II. There was also in this singular and awkward repertoire the haunting twangs of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite from 1931, with their hopeful intimations of travel. In the 1960s, my father was decades behind his time. As I grew into middle age, I realized how grateful I was for it.
In the spring of 1961, my father took my family, including my older brother and a cousin, on a trip to Washington, D.C. It was particularly memorable because on the second night he got us tickets to hear the Marine Band play Sousa at Constitution Hall. Between such transformative moments—Wheatland, the Marine Band—was the weeping undertow of my childhood: every late afternoon, my father, hunched over the unmade bed that was visible from the windows of apartment houses directly across, tying the laces on his work boots, lost briefly in a trance, preparing for another night of driving in the partial wasteland of Brooklyn. Facing him in the bedroom was his small collection of books, two shelves actually. I remember The Conquest of Everest by Sir John Hunt (1954), Beyond the High Himalayas by William O. Douglas (1952), Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone (1948), and one he had just bought, and that he anticipated reading: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962).
In the 1930s my father had spent his twenties riding railway cars around the United States, earning a living as a horse-racing tout in forty-three of the lower forty-eight states. After a “big score” he would check into a first-class hotel, a large cigar in hand: twenty-four hours later, he would be living a hobo’s existence like so many others in the 1930s. He filled me with stories of his escapades in Depression-era America, and of the predominant image of a still-pastoral and naïve nation, where the scams he ran were relatively innocent and people bought you a meal when you were down and out. I have a picture of him, powerful in the way of a photo negative, with a jacket and tie and sharp fedora, wearing a confident smile with which I could never associate him when I was a child, taken at the Texas State Fair in Dallas: the year “1933” emblazoned above him.
Beulah Park (Columbus, Ohio), Arlington Downs (Dallas–Fort Worth), Churchill Downs, where he watched Bold Venture win the Kentucky Derby in 1936—my father knew literally every racetrack in the country. There were Houston and New Orleans in the winter of 1933–34; by freight train (the Union Pacific) from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Las Vegas the following year; sick, broke, back on his feet. It was an epic existence, however aimless, seedy, and pathetic at the edges, as well as full of exaggeration in the telling.
My father’s last memory of travel was in 1942. He had just completed basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and was heading north on a troop train for dispatch to Europe, where he would serve in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in England. At a rail junction near Cairo, Illinois, the sun was setting in rich colors over the prairie. Other trains were then converging from several tracks onto a single line that would take the troops to points along the East Coast, where ships to Europe awaited. Across a wide arc, the only thing he saw were trains and more trains, with soldiers looking out through every window as each train curved toward the others against a flat and limitless landscape lit red by the sun. “Just looking at that scene, that’s the moment when I knew we were going to win the war,” he said to me, smiling briefly at the recollection as he completed tying his shoelaces.
My first map of the United States was composed of my father’s images. It was a landscape full of lessons and marvels that I desperately wanted to experience firsthand. The flat prairie was something I never imagined as dull but, rather, as an immense and magnificent prelude to something grander. I thank my father for that. And thus I would make several journeys from coast to coast: once in my late teens, hitchhiking, fueled with curiosity, obsessed with just seeing the West; then as a middle-aged journalist, writing about social, regional, and environmental issues; and now, finally, in my middle sixties, somewhat chastened by international events, hoping to learn something about America’s place in the world by simply looking at the country around me.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert D. Kaplan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.