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Seeing America the beautiful
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Forsyth County News

Sometimes it is just great to get away. A change in environment helps clear the mind and put things in different perspective.

My wife, Beverly, and I traveled by car to visit our daughter, Erika, and her family for the Thanksgiving holiday. She lives way up in the panhandle of Idaho. Since we were at our Arizona home at the time, the two-day trip took us through a number of Western states.

I had seen most of the places along our route before. But no matter how often I travel through the United States, I am constantly impressed by the sights and experiences, particularly in comparison with similar journeys in other parts of the world.

When we left home, the world revolved around the state of the economy, the transition of the presidency and the antics of Congress.

Gas prices had dropped dramatically, but not all the fuel-surcharges and other add-ons that many industries had assessed.

Controversy over the “bailouts” was paramount, as Wall Street, the banks and car companies held out their hands.

Despite the serious situation, Congress appeared to be doling out the spoils in its inimical fashion — tacking on self-serving items for special interests and with little regard for fairness or even impact.

(I still can’t reconcile the fact that despite its 9 percent approval rating, most people feel that the most important qualification for president is time spent in Congress.)

With so many challenges facing us, it seems almost irreverent to write about the beauty of our nation. But, to a large extent, that’s what it is all about.

I spent a number of years in Washington. From inside, it seems to be the center of the universe.

I was surprised, when I left, to discover once again that it is only a small part of what is important. And the farther away one gets, the less relevant it becomes, until a crisis occurs.

The Catch 22 is that although, theoretically, it has the power to solve the crises, these are often crises of its own making, and then everyone gets caught up in them.

When one travels through the countryside, the things that are important in Washington seem to fade into the distance. People go about their daily lives, doing what is important to them — growing things, making things, selling things. They have more time for social interaction and seem more interested in people.

There is a degree of “civility” that doesn’t exist in many urban centers. There is a disconnect between what takes place locally versus what is going on in the seat of government, until, suddenly,  people find their lives disrupted by events largely outside of their control or even perception.

Living in New York (or any other major urban center for that matter) also provides a very different view of the world.

Physically, there are no mountains or open spaces (Central Park serves as a surrogate). There are no stars in the sky, and the weather is influenced by man-made, local conditions. But the city also has an important psychological impact.

The United States is an urban nation, at least as far as population is concerned. According to U.S. census and UN figures, in 1950, 64 percent of us lived in urban centers.

In 2005 it was up to 80.8 percent and it is estimated that, by 2015, the number will hit 83.7 percent. To put this in perspective, in the year 2000, the U.S. Census showed that 78 percent of the population lived on 2.5 percent of the land area.    

There are both advantages and disadvantages to a heavy population density. At one extreme, we recently visited Copper Canyon, in Mexico, home to the Tarahumara Indians.

It was fascinating to see isolated homes, separated by many miles, where people largely have to be self-sufficient.

One result is that the Tarahumaras are noted for their running endurance, having won a number of ultra-marathons, as their daily existence requires that they travel long distances, up and down high mountains and deep canyons. They’re healthy and seem to be happy, but they live without many of the amenities that we prize so highly.

Concentrating population brings many benefits. It allows for economies of scale in building the infrastructure — water and sewer systems, transportation, health facilities and the like.

It also provides the critical mass for cultural activities and other types of social interaction.

But numerous studies have shown that crowding, particularly overcrowding, leads to disfunctionality, and in extreme situations (largely shown by experiments with animals) can even lead to a total breakdown of society.

Clearly, urban environments differ from rural in more than just the number of people and buildings. Those differences also extend to the behavior of those who live there and place much greater focus on rules and governance.

Some of our cities are beautiful, although virtually all have sections that are not. Some are downright ugly.

But, except for small islands of neglect, it’s hard to find rural areas for which such a description would apply. Most are clean, quiet and many are pristine.

Our trip took us through wonderful hills and rock formations in northern Arizona and southwestern Utah and then the flat, wide open, isolated spaces of central Utah.

It wasn’t until we hit the heavy traffic and thick brown smog sitting over Salt Lake City that we were reminded once again of the differences between urban and rural environments.

But then we passed on to southeastern Idaho, with huge farms and the sun reflecting bright golden colors off the shorn fields and stacks of hay bales everywhere we looked. This was followed by a truly glorious passage through the magnificence of southwestern Montana, country that truly earns its “big sky” reputation. And finally back into Idaho and past the forests and old mining communities. This is a side of America where many of us — that is many of the 80.8 percent of us who live in urban centers — rarely see.

We’ll soon be back home, once again concerned with the craziness of the world around us. But I wonder which is the real world — that of the media and the problems generated within Washington and by Wall Street and other organizations where greed has run rampant, or that of the less complex and more tranquil existence in the beautiful countryside.

It’s probably a meaningless question, as, unfortunately, the latter cannot avoid the impact of the former. In any event, getting out into wide open spaces gives one a chance to think, to breathe and to put things in a different (and hopefully better) perspective and to view this nation in all its glory. Try it and you will see.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at