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. I have no answers. I too have nothing to offer 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 visited were small rural towns. Communities where nothing much happens, unlike what did happen in November 2016 when America became a place I no longer recognize. A place that brings 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 working for little pay a career. Maybe the IG posts will help me find the story..
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said: “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. From there we’d see where life takes us.
We took the road less traveled by heading west toward Albany through upstate New York, then south into Pennsylvania, avoiding the Northeast corridor which is one long traffic jam with few scenic vistas.
The landscape 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.
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 passage of 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.
In Lake Wylie, South Carolina, there was this wonderful evening:
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 Rich and his childhood friend, Peter, played a round of golf. Felix’s persistence despite obstacles made me smile.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
In the small town of Colquitt, Georgia where the pecan farm was there were also murals.
And a theater where a biannual show takes place. It’s called Swamp Gravy and it is all about sharing our stories.
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 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 even 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.
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?
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?
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?
In my lifetime, since Ronald Reagan, politicians have divided and conquered the American voter. Talk radio hosts scream and lie. Fake News is everywhere on Fox and 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 divisive social issues.
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 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