Jefferson planted ‘mad dog’ at Monticello, brought from the West by Lewis and Clark
Ene and I had made three cross-country road trips before our most recent family pilgrimage. The first three punctuated a single year almost twenty years ago, when we negotiated a move from the East Coast to California. We made an exploratory trek through Canada, up into Alaska’s panhandle and down the pacific coast, then a meandering southern ramble back east across the southwest and the Deep South, and finally, a no-nonsense westward beeline traversing the middle, our stuff in tow. Despite dissimilarities, I think of each journey as a rite of passage, a chance to drop everything, check the pulse of American life and open up to the happenstance of the open road.
Twenty years later, as we zig-zagged our way back East across the continent, I realized what a Californian perspective I’ve gained, especially since our move from Oakland to the wild Sonoma Coast. Traveling east to west, ‘nature’ is interpreted through the abstract filters of ‘culture’. I found the opposite to be the case as we car-camped our way over the Sierras, across the desert and into the ancient canyons leading into the Rockies, down to the High Plains and over the Mississippi River to the ‘old country’, back into Culture.
postcards depicting Elvis’ Graceland abound inside the site’s many gift shops
Being short on time and long on ideas, we decided to organize the last leg of our eastbound journey around just two sequential destinations, Graceland and Monticello. Both paragons of American domestic architecture, albeit for nearly opposite reasons, the two iconic homesteads present the polarity of American civilization. In many ways, Jefferson invented the West, and Monticello both anticipates and celebrates its utopian origins and vast potential. Elvis is more a victim than a victor of a more contemporary fame, and his architectural opus, unlike Monticello, is a dystopic retreat from public life, more like the prototype for today’s exurbs. Both celebrity sites share a Southern love of neoclassicism, which lends itself naturally to kitsch.
However crude its manifestation, it is ultimately up to Public Taste to preserve assets of nature and culture, both low and high.