Every Fourth of July in a little town called Seward, hundreds of men, women, and kids run up a mountain as fast as they can in the state-renowned Mt. Marathon race. They pay to do this. They train for weeks in the rain and mud. Sometimes they run with their faces painted as an American flag. If they finish, they get a a bright blue t-shirt.
Mt. Marathon. The path just right of the center is the trail for the race.
Say there was a liberal-leaning sometimes cynic in the crowd. She might be inclined to scoff at this tradition as utterly American—oh, it’s so American to pay to run up a mountain just to brag about it in a t-shirt and then eat two hamburgers and a funnel cake for lunch, for instance.
The truth is, it takes a fourth-of-July celebration like the one in Seward to remind me what it means—or maybe what I want it to mean—to be American. I don’t want America to be its headlines; I don’t want it to be Casey Anthony or debt ceilings or Libyan air raids. I want it to be the dad who is rushing the crowd after work so he can see his daughter finish 46th in the race. I want it to be the town weird kid who skateboards down the hill, trying to balance a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon on his head, while people shake their heads with the kind of simultaneous disapproval and acceptance that you only find in small towns. I want it to be the worn-out sixty-year-old woman covered in dirt and waving to her family as she finishes the race for the 28th time. I want it to be its people.
To get us in the mood for Independence Day, some people anticipating their naturalization ceremony were interviewed and asked what they were most looking forward to about living in America. One said the lottery. Another said work. A third said, “You call 911 and someone comes.”
Sometimes I feel like America is the biggest, noisiest frat house that throws the best parties with the best sound system on International Row. Like it’s a bunch of cool kids with big muscles and nice hair cuts, and I don’t really fit in. Sometimes I want to move to a place like Costa Rica where it’s okay if you forget to wear deodorant one day and everyone’s dressed in sarongs.
But as much as I’d like to think I’d enjoy living in sun-bathed, untimed, luxurious poverty, I instead left my tenured position at a community college, drove 5000 miles with two big dogs and a baby, am now working three jobs, and plan on having another baby without pain medication once we figure out where it will sleep. These are my mountains, and I’ve never been happier. To me, the Mt. Marathon race in Seward is metonymic of America: like the racers, we are a country made proud, tired, dirty, and happy by the vigorous ideals that take us up huge mountains. I think it’s in our country’s blood to try—to crave the feeling of a really good, hero’s journey of a climb that descends into the open, cheering arms of family and community. Sometimes America is the frat party whose noisy, wasteful parties make its neighbors angry; sometimes it’s the place that comes when you call for help; sometimes America is the mountain I feel I need to climb and overcome. But it’s a country that values ideals and effort, and I’m glad it’s mine.
Aaron playing with Darryl and Clara outside by the race festivities.