Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Epic of America, Still

By Scott Burns

The Epic of America, Still

In his bathtub, Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory.

His goal wasn't lofty. He just needed cash for his various wars. Fortunately, President Thomas Jefferson did have a lofty goal— a vision of a coast-to-coast America. So he made the Louisiana Purchase.

The bathtub tidbit comes from "The Epic of America," historian James Truslow Adams' 1931 history of the United States. "The character of our new acquisition to the west of "the river" was not yet well known, but the exploring expeditions of Lewis and Clark in the Northwest and of Zebulon M. Pike in the Southwest had indicated that the prairies and plains were not of much use to settlers, and thus the western half of the country was to retain its reputation as the great American desert until after the Civil War," Adams wrote.

Today, the population center of the United States is well west of "the river." It continues to move further west with each census report, as it has since 1790. Back then it took the Lewis and Clark expedition two years and much hazard to get to the Pacific Ocean from Pittsburgh.

Today, Southwest Airlines flies from Pittsburgh to Seattle three times a day. Each flight covers the 2,483 miles in about 7 hours, including time to change planes in Chicago. And the flight will set you back as little as $244. The average American worker earns that much in two days.

The fare figures to about 10 cents a mile. According to the American Automobile Association that's a bit less than it costs per mile to buy gasoline for the typical American car.

We've come a long way, and gone a great distance.

Today, the greatest hardship on a trip to the Pacific Ocean is the lack of food or a seat that is a tad narrow, but that is hard to complain about when you have a full cash bar, free snacks and flight attendants with a sense of humor.

Steve Penner, a friend in La Jolla, sums it up nicely: "I'll go anywhere Southwest goes. I won't go anywhere else." I share that preference. I only fly other airlines when absolutely necessary.

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