I cringe at the thought that I might be patriotic, but the next thing I know, I’m trying on a Cheesehead hat at the airport in Milwaukee and thinking about how happy I am to live in a nation so vast and idiosyncratic. This, at least, is how I like to think of America — less a set of monolithic ideals than a junk drawer full of halftime shows, regional-style pizzas, feuds over what exactly to call “soda” and snippets of marches by John Philip Sousa. But that sort of patriotism, while good enough as entertainment, offers little comfort when I’m up late at night consuming my 25th hour of news. Lately, my America has felt too vast and fragmented, and fixating on regional curiosities like state-fair butter sculptures and St. Paul sandwiches only exacerbates this crisis of faith. I’ve been searching for new ways to keep liking this country, meaningful ways that don’t feel like work.
Last summer, I went to St. Louis, rode a tram to the top of the Gateway Arch and rode back down to the gift shop at the bottom. There, among the magnets and commemorative spoons, I came across a kind of self-serve station, stocked with ink pads, rubber stamps and small blue books. The books were spiral-bound, with indelible-feeling vinyl covers. A title in gold foil announced: “Passport to Your National Parks.” I picked up a copy. The book divided the country into nine color-coded sections; each is introduced by a numbered list of parks, which is followed by pages for corresponding stamps. I watched as a man approached with his passport and flipped to the orange Midwest Region. The stamp left a circle like an olde-tyme postmark: “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial JUL 19 2017 St. Louis, MO.” How random, I thought, that a space-age arch should be elected as a marker of the Louisiana Purchase. I bought the passport for $9.95, took it to the table and made my first stamp.
The National Park Service, it turned out, offered the perfect way for me to gamify my grab-bag national pride. It was founded in 1916 as part of a Woodrow Wilson conservation effort, and it has grown in size less by coherent vision than by random acts of bureaucratic merger. The service now manages over 400 “units” — not just parks, but historic sites, battlefields, national monuments, seashores, wild rivers and scenic trails. There are National Park Service sites in all 50 states, and even in a handful of our island territories. The West Coast hosts the most postcard panoramas, but the East Coast packs more stamps per square mile. (There are nine in New York City alone.) Most points of contact with patriotism ask us to imagine what we might do for our country. If the passport has its own instructive slogan, it’s something closer to “Collect ’em all.”
I awoke the next day in the St. Louis heat, craving arbitrary merit. As with small round stones or woolen socks, an ink-pad stamp has a calming effect that makes you believe you’d be even calmer if you had more. I opened the map that was included with my passport and saw there was another N.P.S. unit nearby, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, officially commemorated in 1989. The frog-green house and what’s left of its surrounding plantation sit at the heart of a tidy suburban subdivision.
My guide was a Missouri-raised milk-drinking type. (One fringe perk of using the passport is discovering new types of region-specific nerds.) He toured us around through the practically empty house, explaining to a crowd of mostly foreign tourists that Grant lived there for about five years. The site was hardly a Gateway Arch, but the quaint enthusiasm of its preservation aims offered some bite-size edification. It was the tourist equivalent of eating your broccoli. I marked a second stamp in my passport: “Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site JUL 20 2017 St. Louis, MO.”
Six months later, I have 29 stamps inked at sites across six different states. The bulk of these were collected in September, when I drove from California to Philadelphia with my grandma. Like a giant truck-stop sweet tea or “The Grapes of Wrath” on tape, the passport pairs well with a road trip.
Visiting sites in rapid succession, I saw California’s purple mountains and Arizona’s 200-million-year-old petrified forest. I saw two bros vaping outside Independence Hall and a vision of America that remained inconclusive. Standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I imagined what it must have been like to ride a horse through unfamiliar land and come face to face with this immense hole in the ground. I found myself drawn, if only for a moment, to the tantalizing myth of European “discovery.” Eleven days later, at the Liberty Bell, I read how the symbol, again and again, had been taken up in jest by women and people of color, left out of the freedom it promised.