A few weeks ago, I spoke at a college gathering in the small town of Hobbs, N.M., in the eastern portion of the state. It's an oil and gas town with a uranium processing plant nearby. On the way back to my hotel in Midland, Texas, I drove for about 2 1/2 hours at night past immense empty fields of cactus, marked in the darkness only by the lights of oil derricks and pumping stations. They were like Christmas trees in the otherwise black night. Those lights were joyful, reassuring, almost giddily cheerful.
I stopped in two very small towns along the way. Small-town policemen were gathered in front of each 24-hour cafe laughing and joking in the West Texas night. They didn't look frightening, just - again - reassuring and even jovial. Lights in and of themselves.
I stood next to them, and then I noticed the stars above us all. They were dazzling, glorious, like endless Christmas lights. I have gotten so that I am virtually obsessed with lights at night, and the fact that all of us, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, men and women, young and old, are under those stars, lit by those lights.
When I got back to my hotel in Midland, I was almost out of my mind with happiness. How lucky I am, how blessed, to live in a country where I, a wayfaring stranger, can travel the roads in safety, see the vastness of the country and the vast safe haven that is America. I felt as if I were in a warm, protected cocoon called America, and it includes us all. The stars and the oil pump lights and the hotel lights and the police, protecting us all.
I travel constantly, endlessly. I often wake up in hotel rooms in Anchorage, Alaska, or Monroe, La., or Orlando, Fla., or Bloomington, Minn., and I have a bit of trouble remembering where I am and what I'm doing there. Then I recall that I'm safe. I'm in America. The friendliness of this country, from one end to the other, is breathtaking. I was in Germany and France and Belgium this summer. No one smiles at a stranger. No one even looks you in the eye. But in America, it's as if we were all in a club, all buddies, all hanging out together in this big clubhouse we call America, lit by the endless stars above America.
When I get back to California, I swim at midnight on my back and look up at those lights. Occasionally I am totally blessed and see the stars and the moon and a jet whose contrails cross the moon. I cannot help but be thankful to be, safe and free under those lights, in those starry, starry nights of this glorious hometown I call America.