Harley-Davidson bikers . . . Grand Canyon river rats. . .Mormon archaeologists. . . Spelling bee prodigies...
For more than fifteen years, best-selling author and historian Hampton Sides has traveled widely across the continent exploring the America that lurks just behind the scrim of our mainstream culture. Reporting for Outside, The New Yorker, and NPR, among other national media, the award-winning journalist has established a reputation not only as a wry observer of the contemporary American scene but also as one of our more inventive and versatile practitioners of narrative non-fiction.
In these two dozen pieces, collected here for the first time, Sides gives us a fresh, alluring, and at times startling America brimming with fascinating subcultures and bizarre characters who could live nowhere else. Following Sides, we crash the redwood retreat of an apparent cabal of fabulously powerful military-industrialists, drop in on the Indy 500 of bass fishing, and join a giant techno-rave at the lip of the Grand Canyon. We meet a diverse gallery of American visionaries-- from the impossibly perky founder of Tupperware to Indian radical Russell Means to skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. We retrace the route of the historic Bataan Death March with veterans from Sides' acclaimed WWII epic, Ghost Soldiers. Sides also examines the nation that has emerged from the ashes of September 11, recounting the harrowing journeys of three World Trade Center survivors and deciding at the last possible minute not to "embed" on the Iraqi front-lines with the U.S. Marines. Americana gives us a sparkling mosaic of our country today, in all its wild and poignant charm.
Experience the many faces of America with Hampton Sides as he:
. . . drops in on the charmed life of skateboarding icon Tony Hawk; studies counter-terrorism at the G. Gordon Liddy spy school; goes Hollywood with American Indian Movement radical-turned-movie-star Russell Means; steps out of the closet with Mel White, religious right ghostwriter-turned-gay activist; mushes the Iditarod Trail with Alaska legend Joe Redington.
. . . runs the rapids during a man-made flood in the Grand Canyon; crashes the redwood retreat of California's elite Bohemian Club; debriefs the "bio-nauts" as they emerge from captivity in the Biosphere; dives into America's greatest swimming hole; gets ecstatic with the Zippies at their secret all-night techno-rave.
. . . ponders silver bubbles at the annual Airstream RV convention; revs it up at the Harley-Davidson rally in Sturgis, South Dakota; sails the Chesapeake with snooty owners of a rare antique sailboat known as the log canoe; roams the streets with D.C.'s hard-core band of bike couriers.
AMERICAN BY BIRTH, SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF . . .
. . . speaks in tongues with black Pentecostalists of the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ; fishes for lunkers at the Bassmasters Classic; goes underground with the world's greatest cave rescuer; unravels the mystery of a notorious teen murder in rural Mississippi.
. . . crosses the Sahara Desert with American endurance runners at the infernal Marathon des Sables; bushwhacks through MesoAmerica with Mormon archaeologists in search of lost tribes of Israel; visits a high school friend who's become an Uzi-toting Zionist pioneer in the West Bank; walks the route of the Bataan Death March with characters from Ghost Soldiers.
. . . cranks it up with high-end stereophiles at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; gets bowled over by 5,000 squealing salesladies at the annual Tupperware convention; plumbs the mysteries of the "schwa" at the National Spelling Bee; scrapes at the stucco of the neurotic architectural tradition known as Santa Fe Style.
AMERICA, POST 9/11
. . . traces the harrowing stories of three World Trade Center survivors; goes off-roading in the Imperial Sand Dunes; almost embeds on the Iraqi frontlines with the U.S. Marines; remembers Shane Childers, the decorated Marine who became the first American combat death in Iraq.
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April 12, 2004
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Excerpt from Americana by Hampton Sides
The groms press forward, inching eagerly toward the arena entrance. Mullet-haired rampheads, bescabbed halfpipe urchins, scuffling along in their clompy skate shoes, their laces tied with a precise looseness. Eight thousand zitty faces lit with incipient testosterone, waiting to be shown revolutionary ways in which Newtonian physics can be warped, postponed, and dicked with.
They've come to the Mandalay Bay Area in Las Vegas for a new kind of entertainment, a show that pumps the raw crude of male adolescence, a hormonic convergence of phatness and sweetness and straight-out sickness. These young acolytes have come for amplitude, for stunts and biffs, for grinds and grabs and serious air, for loud music and fumy motorcycle farts.
They've come for the Boom Boom HuckJam.
Once through the doors, the grommets come face-to-face with the thing itself. Behind a scrim of netting lies a baroque installation of giant stages, jumps, and ramps glinting in a swirl of strobe lights. Soon the chanting begins-toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE-the whole arena surging with raw skate-kid wattage.
Tony Hawk is the mind and wallet behind this unprecedented show. It's his private experiment, designed as a two-hour adrenaline extravaganza, a busy amalgam of motocross, BMX, and live music, with vertical skateboarding taking center stage. Tonight is the live debut of the HuckJam. It represents a huge financial gamble for the thirty-four-year-old skateboarding venture capitalist; nearly $1 million of Hawk's own money is invested in this modern vaudeville act, which he will take on the road this fall.
To my immediate left, sitting with his dad in the VIP section, is Jonathan Lipnicki, the bespectacled twelve-year-old child star of Stuart Little and Jerry Maguire. Lipnicki has been a Hawk fan for as long as he can remember. "Oh yeah, Tony's, like, the greatest!" he says.
Now the circus-barking announcer starts whipping up the crowd: Las Vegas! We need a little thunder!
A few aisles over sit Hawk's mom, Nancy, his wife, Erin, and his sister Pat, who manages the business that is Tony Hawk Inc. Near them is Sarah Hall, Hawk's publicist, who used to work as a tour assistant for the singer Michael Bolton back when he had long, curly hair and lived at the top of the charts. "Tony's bigger now than Michael ever was," she confided to me earlier at the rehearsal. "Even at his peak, even with 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' He's that huge."
C'mon Vegas-we're not with you yet!
In front of me sits an executive from Hansen's, the beverage company. They're poised to inflict a new energy drink on American youth called Monster. The exec says she's been negotiating with Hawk's people to strike up a sponsorship deal. "Tony's hard to walk away from," she says over the roar.
Energy drink? Like ginseng, ginkgo-that sort of thing?
"Caffeine, mostly," she shouts. "And sugar. We use lots of sugar."
Las Vegas, let's hear some more noise!
Now the houselights go out and a bevy of fembots-jiggy young models in silver lame body stockings, white Lone Ranger masks, and platinum-blond wigs-come out holding signs that signal the start of the HuckJam. From the far stage, swaddled in a dry-ice haze, the punk band Social Distortion cranks up.
C'mon, people, let's DO this!
Here come the skateboarders-zipping down, one by one, from a thirty-foot-high perch in the scaffolding. Like buzzy, looping electrons, Bob Burnquist, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda, Bucky Lasek, and Shaun White-five of the preeminent vert skaters in the world-power through the massive bronze bowl of the halfpipe and launch high over the lip in a dervish of spins and kickflips, ollies and McTwists. And then-
Ladies and gentulmennnnnnnnn . . .
The man we've all been waiting for dives down the ramp, lanky and tough-sinewed and-true to his name-curiously avian, with a beaky nose and flailing arms and big, alert eyes. He soars through the air and lands effortlessly on the platform with the other skaters, Quetzalcoatl among mere mortals: the Birdman.
Calmly drinking in the adulation, Hawk hoists his board over his helmeted head and tips it toward the roaring crowd in a ritual gesture of beneficence, as if to say, "Welcome, children of the pipe, your sins are forgiven!"