Sun God on the Sun Road
by Jeff Lewis

I grew up partly in Europe and partly in a quaint fog-shrouded town on California’s central coast, where you could guarantee that everyone wearing shorts was from out of town.  For better or worse, I’ve always made a conscious effort not to look like an American tourist when I’m traveling.

If you are an American traveling through Europe and don’t want to be recognized immediately as a Yank, you merely need to avoid wearing baseball caps and university t-shirts.  Because virtually every group of Americans has at least one person wearing these items, the act of not wearing them automatically makes you look like you live somewhere else in the European Union.  In France, you may be taken for English, in Italy for a Dane.  Consequently, I’ve excised all university-themed clothing from my wardrobe, or so I thought.  (Of course, once you complain about the odd tasting ketchup, avoid tipping the woman watching the urinal or fail to emphasize the “Mac” in McDonalds, your cover is blown.)

On our recent road trip, we made no attempt to look like locals, since we seldom were far from our car, with its California license plate and Sierra Club decal.  We simply could not pass as Montanans or Canadians and didn’t try.  I consciously dropped the “oat” that occasionally—inexplicably—drifts into my “abouts,” and wore a baseball cap when we went horseback riding.  My working theory is that when I become a Bavarian, I’ll wear leather overalls; when I become a cowboy, I’ll wear a brimmed hat.

Midway through our trip, we visited Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in northwestern Montana.  The biggest attraction is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a breathtaking mountain pass across the continental divide that shows off the park’s jagged peaks, mountain goats that block traffic and bighorn sheep that pose for photographs.  The U.S.-Canadian border runs through the park and visitors are encouraged to reach across the border and touch a Canadian.  It’s a neat experience because many have fine, silky hair and soft cardigans.  Some have scratchy beards, but it’s still fun to tickle them under the chin, in the name of world peace.

At one point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we stopped at an overlook to watch a goat maneuver across a craggy cliff.  Other goats sat roadside and a hoary marmot—a cousin of the Groundhog Day co-star—posed for pictures.  While Lynn wandered off to photograph the marmot, I stood by the car and watched the goats.

A woman in her early 30s approached.  “Excuse me,” she said forcefully, “Did you go to UCSD?”  This surprised me into a quizzical stare, rather than the broad smile that I generally reserve for strangers at peace parks.  Why does she think that I attended the University of California at San Diego?  I looked her over critically.  Do I know her?  No.

Then it dawned on me that the answer must lay about my person.  While she awaited my answer, I looked at my chest.  It had a stylized picture of Niki De Saint Phalle’s statue Sun God, a landmark of the UCSD campus.  I thought, “I’m wearing a university-themed t-shirt.”  I looked back at the woman, sensing that she was becoming impatient, and then looked back at my shirt.  Under the Sun God was “UCSD” in small lettering.  I pointed at this and said loudly, “Yes.”

She replied, “My husband and I went to school there,” and pointed at a tall man on the other side of the parking lot.  I glanced at her husband and stared at her again, still trying to figure out if I knew her.  She clearly was awaiting some sort of acknowledgement, so I considered asking when she graduated or perhaps which college she attended.  I wasn’t thinking very quickly and no matter what type of first impression your clothing gives, it cannot compete with a second impression that insinuates “developmentally disabled.”

Finally mustering my broad grin, I said with conviction:  “THAT’S WONDERFUL!”  My voice cracked on the “AT’S” and—I guess because I wanted to show goodwill—I put heavy emphasis on the “WONDER.”

She gave me a look that said, “You are an idiot,” and walked away.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004