Jack Kerouac once took a famous road trip and had this to say about it: “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
Back at home on Higley Hill after over two weeks on the road I think I know what Kerouac meant. Or at least I know some of the questions, not the answers. I too have nothing to offer you but my own confusion.
I sat down to write this blog numerous times since I’ve been home. There were lessons to learn from the road. There always are. Travel for me is new experiences, new places, and meeting people who live different lives and have different points of view. On this particular trip it was the points of view that tripped me up. I can’t find the words to explain the meaning of all I saw and what, if anything, I learned.
A lot of the places we traveled from and to are rural places. Communities where nothing much happens but what did happen in November 2016 changed America into a place I no longer recognize. A place that induces anxiety and anger on many mornings when I wake to the relentless stream of bad news coming out of Washington.
I started this story on Instagram where I share short stories along with pictures. I’m including a few of the posts throughout this blog. I have never experienced writer’s block in my writing career – if you can call something you spend hours doing for little pay and often a lot of overtime a career. But at the moment my thoughts are confused. I can’t find the meaning of the journey.
Then I found these words from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
That led me back to the photos and the words I shared on the trip. They are a map across the landscape of my memories and a guide book to help figure out what it all meant.
We were not setting off on a ski vacation, exploring a foreign country, or headed to a beach resort, although we have taken those sort of vacations before and enjoyed them. On this trip our only goals were a change of scenery, sunshine, and warmer weather. We had nothing much else in mind.
We took the road less traveled by heading west toward Albany through upstate New York, then south into Pennsylvania. We were avoiding the Northeast corridor which is one long traffic jam with very few scenic vistas.
The scenery through New York and into Pennsylvania was farmland. Cows and silos, large agribusinesses and tumbling down barns. This is a trucker’s route and sometimes we got caught up in a convoy as we passed through the cities of Scranton, Wilkes Barre, and Allentown, where we discussed Billy Joel and I hunted for a tape of his in my box of music.
Stories From The Road: Florida Bound The grass is green in Hershey, PA. We passed through Pennsylvania coal country. Scranton, Wilkes Barre, Allentown, Frackville. There were miles of windmills along the ridge off in the distance which contradicts the promise of coal making a comeback in this part of the country. We see lots of signs demanding the installation of safe gas pipelines. And then there are the Jesus and pro-life bumper stickers. We shared the $5 Subway sandwich of the day at a gas station in Harrisburg – ham with pickles, and at another gas station in some other burg I had a craving for a Klondike bar. #roadtrip #theroadgoesonforever #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #wordsandpictures #anamericantune #theroadislife
The following morning in Lexington, Virginia, just north of Roanoke, we woke to blue sky and unfamiliar flowering trees. I have been here so many times before; a motel parking lot, crisp early morning air, car windows wet with dew, license plates from across the nation. On this particular morning we were at the crossroads of three major highways offering choices and options. A cluster of economy hotels, chain restaurants, and gas stations planted in an otherwise bucolic setting along America’s Interstate Highway System.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, signed the Federal Highway act in 1956, a year before I was born. It is forty-one thousand miles of highway meant to eliminate unsafe roads and traffic jams, and speed up travel and commerce. Advocates of the highway project made the argument that the roads would facilitate quick evacuations in the event of an atomic attack on our major cities and this bill was essential to our national security.
Apparently fear has always worked with the American voting public. However, I am grateful to Eisenhower for these highways and also to Lady Bird Johnson, a Democrat who as First Lady took on the cause of highway beautification. Over the years I have traveled to forty-five states. Although many of Lady Bird’s flowers are gone now, we came across red tulips and blue bachelor’s buttons planted along the medians of South Carolina’s highways.
History is a part of our American story. I learned this lesson when I was very young when my Dad, the U.S. history teacher, took us on historical vacations across America. One thing I gleaned on my current road trip is that Americans have lost a sense of their shared history. They no longer know what the fight was all about during the American Revolution. The Constitution means different things to different people, particularly politicians and their wealthy donors with personal agendas. As I watch President Trump and his cabinet undo everything I and my forebears have ever fought for my heart aches.
In Dothan, Alabama we stumbled upon the first of three mural cities. We found them in a neglected, rundown part of town. No one knew about them anymore. It was a metaphor for American history itself.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute We are driving north into Alabama then east into South Georgia. There are miles of cow farms and freshly tilled fields of reddish brown dirt. I keep noticing billboards advertising The Mural City. It is Dothan, Alabama – the largest town we will drive through on our trip to the pecan farm. The billboards are faded and peeling but I assume the murals must still be there. We drive along the main drag that could be anywhere America. Home Depot, McDonalds, but we know we're in the south because there's Popeyes and a farm stand selling Mayhew jelly. We don't know what that is but we saw small signs planted in the grass all along the route for that and Gator jerky. Gator heads too! Rich pulls over to check the Map. I run in the Howard Johnson's to ask about the murals. The woman at the desk has never heard of them but she thinks they must be in the historic district. She gives me directions. #muralcity #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #wordsandpictures #smalltownamerica #thestoryofamericain2017 #dividednation #roadtrip #theroadislife #theroadislife
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute Historic Dothan, Alabama reminded me of so many small rural towns I have driven through and written about throughout New England and upstate New York. Hoosick Falls, Hinsdale, Woonsocket, Winsted. Empty buildings, lack of jobs. The industries that once made these towns prosperous are gone now. Some of them were the same here as in Apalachicola where we were just a few days ago. The murals paid tribute to them. Turpentine, cotton, lumber. In The northeast it was textiles, jewelry, furniture, clocks. Different places, the same problems. Why are we such a #dividednation? #muralcity #streetart #publicart #instagramstories #instagramwriters #wordsandpictures #roadtrip #smalltownamerica #theroadislife
In Lake Wylie, South Carolina, there was this wonderful evening:
Stories From The Road: Florida Bound. Last night in Lake Wylie, SC I met with a wonderful group of women at their book club and read from my third novel Life Is All This. There are so many stereotypes and pre- conceived opinions in America but in this room last night the author from Vermont and the book lovers from Carolina had so many things in common from our kids to our worries about retirement and the whole world in general. Thank you Kim, the evening's hostess. And thanks to my friend Cindy for making the evening happen. I will return when my fourth novel is ready, however I get it out there. #bookclubs #newfriends #readabook #roadtrip #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #wordsandpictures #lifeisallthis #theroadislife
I will admit I was nervous about attending the book club, a northern leftist liberal in a room full of Southern readers, but these wonderful, friendly women embraced me with open arms. They even asked me what they could do to help. “Just read the books,” I said. “And if you like them write a review on Amazon. Reviews really matter.”
I bumped into a man name Felix numerous times throughout a day spent exploring the historic town of San Fernandina, Florida while my husband and his childhood friend, Peter, played a round of golf. Felix’s persistence despite obstacles made me smile.
Stories From the Road: Florida Bound This is Felix riding off on his bike from which he sells boiled peanuts. We bumped into each other several times today as I walked the streets and he sold his peanuts. He walks with a limp that causes him to rock and sway as he pops into Nana Teresa's Bake Shop where I had a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish. We ran into each other again at Florida's oldest bar, The Palace Saloon with the coca-cola sign, where I poked my head in the open door to check it out for the possibility of a nightcap after dinner tonight. Shandel, the woman who drives the complimentary van from the Residence Inn to town, told me Felix is a fixture here in Fernandina with his jaunty straw hat and colorful Mardi Gras beads. I'm glad I met him. #floridalife #theroadgoesonforever #smalltownusa #southerntowns #roadtrip #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #wemadeit #wordsandpictures #theroadislife
When Rich and I travel without definite plans, we just get in the car and drive. We open ourselves up to the unexpected. On this trip we learned about the dwindling longleaf pine forests.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute This is how life happens sometimes. You meet some people you hit it off with. Your kids are dating or whatever. You keep in touch. You spend some time together. You share things in common like a love of the outdoors, rural landscapes, and ecology. You watch a documentary about #longleafpines. A few days later you find yourself driving along dirt roads in rural Georgia through a carbon forest of these dwindling burnt bark trees dwelling in an endangered ecosystem that now fascinates you. There is something about coincidence, fate, and landscape that has always fascinated me. Who you meet, where life takes you, and how some grand design makes it all happen. A lot of it has to do with choices and your own relationship with risk. But there is always the randomness of the universe that writes the story if you read between the lines. Down in the garage where we drink and play pool each night the walls are covered with license plates, family photos, old signs, and this quote from Pat Conroy: "Entering Charleston is like walking through the brilliant carbon forest of a diamond with the light dazzling you in a thousand ways, an assault of light and shadow caused by light." #lifeisallthis #instagramwriters #instagramstories #wordsandpictures #ruralamerica #patconroy #theroadislife
When you open yourself up to the unplanned adventure you never know what might happen. One morning we ended up on a hog hunt at our friend’s pecan farm in South Georgia. Something I never imagined myself doing.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute Hog Hunting: It was a dark cloudless night with more stars than I'd ever laid eyes on. No mountains to shrink the view. Just a flat endless canvas where I was able to clearly identify Canis Major, Orion's loyal dog. Ron had a constellation map that helped us find Leo the Lion. A hog hunter thought he might be able to come by tonight but something else came up so we were out driving in the dark to back fields where a man named Loren had spotted the #wildhogs the other night. As we bounced along the dirt roads and open fields I stuck my head out the window. The trees blurred past, wind blew through my hair, and a few shooting stars passed overhead. I felt wild and free and young. We wouldn't find the hogs until the next morning. #stargazing #hoghunting #southgeorgia #pecanfarm #instagramstories #instagramwriters #wordsandpictures #theroadislife
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute The #hoghunt ended in a hollow of large boulders, yellow brown rocks excavated from the loamy soil of South Georgia. The dogs followed them right in. Cindy and I heard the hogs' loud squeals and stayed in the truck. Later, after the hunt, Rich said a gun would have been less gruesome. But he thought it had something to do with the safety of the dogs who are used to first chase the #hogs down, then corner them where they sieze the hog by the ear to control them until the hunter arrives with his knife. Brandon told us hog hunting has been going on for centuries. Nationwide, wild boars and feral pigs are a menace to farm crops and the timber industry. They are also a menace to the environment. Their rooting and wallowing causes runoffs and contributes to the pollution of drinking water. Because they breed amazingly quickly and have no natural predators a group of hogs can easily overrun a small #pecanfarm like the one we were visiting in no time at all. At the end of the hunt everyone's adrenaline was pumping. Who needs coffee when you a start a day like this? Brandon said, "Once you do it a few times you're addicted." In my case, and I think I can speak for Rich too, that wouldn't be true. But it was certainly eye opening and there has to be something to learn here about other ways of life. #lessonsfromtheroad #roadtrip #instagramstories #instagramwriters #wordsandpictures #abluestateliberalinthedeepsouth #theroadislife
I will admit I expected to see a lot of Trump support in the form of bumper stickers and lawn signs and yes, it was there.
Stories From the Road: Florida Bound We passed this truck driving through Tallahassee traffic. Two women in a Nissan were driving behind the Frito Lay delivery truck with potato chips dancing on the side of the trailer. The redhead was gesticulating wildly. I could tell she was speaking loudly. Occasionally she'd place her left hand on her heart. The driver was an older gray haired woman. She just kept nodding while keeping her eyes on the heavily trafficked road. "What do you think she's talking about?" I asked. "A breakup? He broke my heart. I kicked him out of the house." "Maybe she's talking about Trump," Rich said and pointed to the message on the dirty back door. A van passed us on the right. Rich got ready to make his move and said, "Get your camera ready. You're gonna want to take a picture of this." It was a pro-Trump essay taped to the back of the van. Something about "Use the power of the Oval Office and send them all back across the border". My phone had slipped between the seat and the console. I missed the photo op. I was relieved to get out of the shopping mall, red light, traffic congested nightmare that is called Tallahassee but we were headed to the Panhandle, a place some call the Redneck Riveria. #staytuned #roadtrip #abluestateliberalinredneckcountry #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #wordsandpictures #dividednation #theroadislife
On previous visits to the South I had seen the Jesus is the Way and anti-abortion billboards. There were even more of them on this trip and I also came across signs in North Carolina regarding the transgender bathroom issue.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute Blew right through the town of Boone's Mill, VA on our way to Shenandoah National Park. I could travel for months but I admit I am weary of the confederate flags, the pro-gun bumper stickers, the sexist T-shirts, the anti-abortion billboards, the Calgary crosses, and the holier than thou. Our friends in Summerfield told us they struggle with living here in the south. The overbearing religion thing bothers them. "What church do you belong to?" Is a common getting to meet you question. They moved here because of a great job offer. They need to work three more years before Medicare kicks in. They admit they are counting the days. It's not that we don't all have the right to believe what we believe as far as religion goes. It's the in your face nature of it here in Bible Belt. My friend told me it makes him feel uncomfortable. Me too. #instagramwriters #instagramstories #roadtrip #abluestateliberalinthedeepsouth #wordsandpictures #theroadislife
It is as if people have been emboldened by the recent election. Their opinions and prejudices have been validated. Although most statehouses have now removed the Confederate flag there were plenty of them flying on front lawns, waving from the back of pickup trucks, and printed on T-shirts.
Stories From The Road: Florida Bound Traffic dissipated when we reached the Panhandle. Anti- abortion billboards popped up. The land is flat. The sky is big. Until the trees close in and line the roadway. A rusted sign on a building that looks like it once housed a supermarket has a sign that offers Real God Real Church Real People. I wanted a picture but Rich wouldn't turn around. There are no shortage of churches here. Apostolic. Pentecostal. Baptist. Fundamental. Can I tell you all of this makes me feel very uncomfortable? Framed signs with white letters on black backgrounds advertise Trump: Make America Great Again. They appear to be permanent fixtures like storefront signs. Unlike the signs made of sturdy paper with wire sticks I put at the end of my driveway back in NH: Obama for President and Support the Troops. End the War. The bridge into Apalachicola reminds me of the drive to Key West. The town is funky #oldflorida. There are lots of dining options. I am keeping an #openmind here on the #redneckriveria #roadtrip #instagramstories #instagramwriters #writersofinstagram #wordsandpictures #abluestateliberalinredneckcountry #theroadislife
By the end of the trip I admit the Confederate flags, the pro-gun bumper stickers, the sexist T-shirts, the anti-abortion billboards, the Calgary crosses, and the holier than thou wore me out. The unrelenting presence of religious proselytizing was insulting and invasive. In a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom there is a certain part of the population that doesn’t understand or respect the fact that those words also mean some of us have the freedom to not believe. The political positions juxtaposed with so-called Christian values were jarring and hypocritical.
But, there are always two sides to a story. Although I saw this in Apalachicola, a small, sweet town in the Florida Panhandle:
Stories From The Road: Florida Bound Last Night in Apalachicola I saw the Tupelo Honey sign first. Then I saw the flag. There are a few other stores in town selling just honey not politics. I'll be shopping elsewhere. #tatteredflag #tatteredflagseries #smalltownamerica #roadtrip #writersofinstagram #instagramstories #dividednation #theroadislife
I also saw this next door:
And therein lies my confusion.
There was also another message along the waterfront in Apalachicola. I couldn’t find any information on who placed these words along the docks or what the words meant to the messenger. You wouldn’t think we would have to wonder about the definition of a word but yes, nowadays we do have to question not only the meaning of the word, but what it means to someone else. Even two simple words like wake and bake.
Stories From The Road: Florida Bound. Today started with a search for breakfast. We found a coffee shop but they weren't serving food until 11:00 am. I know how Southerns have a more laid back reputation than we Northeasterns, but seriously? I told the young man working the register that we were looking for a bakery I found online. "Wake and Bake? Have you heard of it?" "Yeah. The name was controversial. They're not here anymore." Oh my. I told him about @meandollies in Exeter NH where we lived for many years The t- shirts and the bumper stickers with their logo Wake and Bake. Now a lot of us know what that means – a wake and bake is an early morning high- but they're bakers who rise early and bake bread and muffins, and censorship of words? How is that okay? He nodded in agreement but said no more. We took our coffee to go and stumbled upon an antique car show but my eye was drawn to the waterfront where I saw a few signs wrapped around poles that I didn't notice last night. Signs with Words like Sympathize. Tolerance. Love Others. Peace. Who put these here I wondered. What is their definition of these words? Is it the same definition As mine? The same definition as the Oxford dictionary? Then I saw The Scream and thought yes, maybe it is. #roadtrip #instagramstories #writersofinstagram #freedomofsoeech #wordsandpictures #tatteredflagseries #dividednation #wordsarepowerful #wakeandbake #theroadislife #messagesfromamerica
In the small town of Colquitt, Georgia where the pecan farm was there were also murals.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute One of the most impressive murals I've come across was in Colquitt. It's painted on four silos and makes one circular cohesive picture of a cotton farmer picking the crop. It's stunning. #muralcity #wordsandpictures #instagramwriters #instagramstories #streetart #publicart #pecancountry #roadtrip #theroadislife
And a theater where a biannual show takes place. It’s called Swamp Gravy and it is all about sharing our stories.
Notes From The Road: The Reverse Commute Colquitt, GA is our destination for the next few days. The clock in town says it is the first #muralcity . I had never heard of a mural city and now I've visited three in one day. It is also the home of a community theater that hosts Swamp Gravy twice a year, in March and October. A folk life play billed as "you tell your story I'll tell mine" which is a little like I'm doing here with these #instagramstories Ron told us his uncle was in the play one year and told the story of the first time he stepped into a store that had air conditioning and how amazing that was. The stories they share each season are about life and death, family and community. I wish we were here in March to see it because these are stories I like to write. #lifeisallthis #instagramwriters #instagramstories #wordsandpictures #roadtrip #goodfriends #swampgravy #muralcity #theroadislife
That got me thinking about the arts and how important they are for our culture, our shared history, and reaching across the divide.
We all have stories. One of the things I did learn was that when I can connect with people one on one and we share our stories, we discover we have more in common than we thought. We share the same concerns and worries, and if we don’t, by sharing our stories we experience empathy for someone else’s struggle.
The divide exists between us when we think all Southerners wear T-shirts proclaiming “Body Tattooing by Smith and Wesson”. I actually met and spoke to the man who was wearing that T-shirt. He pulled up to a gas station on his motorcycle. He is a neighbor of our friends at the pecan farm and had helped them out numerous times. They don’t like the T-shirt either but this man was a good neighbor and he was the guy who was trying to get us oysters for dinner one night. He stopped at the gas station to update us on his progress.
My most troubling and upsetting moments along the road trip were when I saw people as the bumper stickers on their rear fenders, the T-shirts they wore, or the signs they planted on their front lawns. Not to diminish the troubling aspect of all this. Although I said I wasn’t visiting a foreign country there were many times I felt lost in a foreign land. I do realize there are a certain group of people who will never open their minds. It is when I get the chance to meet and talk to people that I find the majority of Americans are kind, honest, and willing to listen.
Still, the confusion remains.
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute Ron is up before everyone else each morning, mowing between the rows of #pecantrees and checking the irrigation lines for damage from the pesky wild pigs. A #pecanfarm is endless work. We took a trip to Albany, GA hauling a Kabota tracker behind us through miles of tall pines and flat farmland. The blue sky goes on forever. Albany is like Torrington, the town we shopped in when we managed the inn in CT, but the sun is brighter and more intense, washing out colors. Back in Fernandina Beach the town hall had a bell in the tower that was made in Troy, NY. where I took the first photo of the #roadtrip. We left Vermont going west toward Albany, NY. All across America things are the same but so very different. After we drop off the tractor we stop at an upholstery shop that a friendly elderly Black man owns. A younger man is his apprentice. I poke around the old chairs, sofas, and bolts of fabric. There is stuff everywhere. It reminds me of my uncle, my godfather, who was also an upholster. When I started my bookkeeping business years ago he was one of my first clients. His shop was in a large old warehouse in Providence just as cluttered and fascinating as the shop I am standing in today in rural Georgia. #memorytriggers ##thesamebutdifferent #instagramstories #instagramwriters #wordsandpictures #theroadislife
Do the similarities in the above Instagram post make sense or am I seeing what I want to see?
Do my questions have answers? Can our problems be solved?
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute Back in Colquitt running farm errands and shopping in great little stores with clothes, gizmos people don't need but want, flowers, and what-all. Ran into a guy who is a friend of our friends and we hope he shows up with oysters tonight. Met another farmer who told us about a man who works for him and recently lost his son. The son won some money at a card game and after he left the bar another man shot him to death. The man who told us this story said this Dad conveyed the story to him in a matter of fact sort of way. I will never understand America's attitude toward life, death, and guns. Never. Because I believe it shouldn't be this way. #tatteredflagseries #dividednation #gunsense #roadtrip #instagramstories #instagramwriters #wordsandpictures #abluestateliberalinthedeepsouth #theroadislife
Many of the larger cities we visited, like Athens and Roanoke, were hip, more racially diverse, progressive, intellectually involved, and had a lot more music, theater, and arts to choose from. So what happens after Trump cuts funds for the National Endowment for the Arts?
Stories From The Road: The Reverse Commute The GPS on my phone was acting up. Siri told me she couldn't find Shenandoah National Park. I think she's tired of the road. Route 220 North dumped us in the center of downtown Roanoke. It looked like Boston's Quincy Market. We pulled over when we saw a coffee shop. A young black man was passed out in a doorway. Another man with dreadlocks passed by with his friend whose hair was knotted, his beard long, like one of those mountain men who come out of the Vermont woods about this time of year. That story is on the blog. Link in my profile and search Shameless in Brattleboro. The dreadlocked man tried to wake the young man on the pavement. "You okay, man? Wake up! Come on." He looked at me. I shook my head. He walked to the corner and checked the street signs at the intersection then called 911. In the coffee shop they played Mumford and Sons. Families shared Sunday breakfast and hipsters read the paper or communed with their phones. I got out my laptop and figured out our next route. I am not tired of the road yet. When we returned to the car the young man in the doorway was gone. #roadtrip #wordsandpictures #instagramstories #instagramwriters #homelessinamerica #americancities #twoamericas #cocacola #theroadislife
Northeast rural towns voted for Trump, too. I even saw Trump signs in Vermont – down the road from my house – and many people refer to this liberal state as the Republic of Vermont. So does the problem start in rural America?
We are better when we talk to each other and share our stories. Since the eighties politicians have divided and conquered the American voter. Talk radio hosts scream and lie. Fake News is everywhere on the Internet. Instead of addressing real issues like education, the environment, income inequality, retirement, and so many concerns we have in common, the media and politicians distract us with social issues that divide us.
Is it our nation’s neglect of rural places and the forgotten people who live and struggle in these places that is the problem? How is it in an era when we can work anywhere with a laptop and a wifi connection that we fail to come up with solutions to this problem?
Every city we passed through we sat in traffic. Outside of Savannah it was bumper to bumper for over an hour. Aren’t there entrepreneurs who would love to live in bucolic places with the outdoors close by? Places with hiking, white water rafting, a couple of nice restaurants, and old mills that could be renovated into trendy lofts for less rent than the big cities?
Is there a way to bring diversity to these towns? How about instead of building a wall we spend money to revive the arts in rural places? Some towns like Colquitt are actually doing this on their own.
This is what I saw and remembered from my road trip. This is my confusion. As the photographer Elliott Erwitt once said, “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”
***Please share your questions in the comments. And if you can think of any solutions, please share those too.***
If you’d like to see more words and pictures from the road trip you can visit my Instagram account.
COMING SOON: How a not very well-off older couple with very little retirement funds took a road trip for two and a half weeks.
**STAY TUNED!** for #howwedidit