My sons and
I just returned from a road trip across America and back. Somehow we managed to
do it in eleven days.
exhausted and wearied in a way I’m not used to. I’m defeated and beaten deep
down to my very character. That’s where your hope resides -- and beliefs, and probably
happened is that about halfway through the trip, I had to grapple with the fact
that a very close friend of mine – someone I truly cherish and revere – was so
sick that no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see how he was going to
survive. This is one of those things so depressing you can barely haul yourself
up in the morning.
Corny as it
sounds, the friend is America.
I’m not the
only one who felt it. Two of my sons, aged 24 and 21, traveled every foot of
that trip with me, and by the end – as we pulled onto Los Angeles freeway 91 –
one of them said quietly, “What was that?”
amended the question. “What is that?”
Yes. What is
This kind of
travel isn’t new to us. Unbelievable as
it sounds, since 2009, my family have made more than 18 treks across the
country, usually from Los Angeles to Toronto, but since my eldest son went to
school in Ottawa and my daughter started school in Washington DC., those cities
have been added as well, with a few jaunts through the south and west. So we
know those roads and we know all the wonderful and wild inanity that makes up
the American road.
We know, for
instance, that you’re a fool if you don’t white knuckle it through the Mojave
desert, where temperatures can get up to 120 Fahrenheit without anyone really
commenting on it, even if that’s hot enough to blow your tires. (There’s a gas
station between Barstow and Needles that knows just how valuable it is, so it jacks
its price a cool 200% of what everyone else charges before Barstow and after
Needles). We know Clines Corners in
western New Mexico, we know the fantastic Cowboy Museum (Oklahoma City; never
miss it) and every Presidential Museum (Ike’s is the best). We know motels and hotels and KOA’s.
after a long roundabout trip through the south, we were finishing off the last
leg through New Mexico, and as we stepped out at a perfectly nondescript rest
stop to take a pee, my sixteen year old son sighed and exclaimed, “THIS
shithole again??” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Yes. He was right. This shithole again.
You need to have
certain appetites to enjoy this kind of thing. Dodge City has to mean something
to you. The Jesse James caves must seem perfectly legitimate history; Uranus
Fudge Factory must hold some humor; Cadillac Ranch must be profound; and you
have to like the weird chemically icy fragrance of mid-range motel air
You also have
to be ready for sudden grandeur and beauty; not just Grand Canyon stuff, but those
lush snake rivers of Arkansas -- which just appear out of nowhere over every
bridge on the Interstate -- or the canyons of Utah; the Martian vistas of New
Mexico and Arizona; and those beautiful rolling plains of Missouri and Kansas.
Kentucky is one of the most beautiful states of the union, and how many people
Then your heart
and soul gets rocked. Visit what they call the “Lynching Museum” in Montgomery
Alabama (the outdoor part) if you want to be altered for life; the strange ruin
of the grocery store in Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till allegedly whistled
at the owner’s wife; the spookiness of the Tallahatchie River; or just stand in
the desert outside Tucumcari at 2 a.m. In
2018, my sons and I went to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, but we
wound up spending more time in the old cemetery there, grappling with the
poignancy of beautifully kept Confederate tombstones and flowers upon graves of
children wiped out in the 1918 epidemic, and – who knew? – Edmund Pettus’ decrepit
On July 4 of
that year, we realized we had made no plans for celebrating Independence Day.
With no great thought, we turned off the highway and edged our way into Greenville
South Carolina, a town about which we knew nothing. It was just after dark. We
parked, waded our way through tailgaters and picnickers, hoped we were headed vaguely
in the direction of public fireworks, and got lucky: that night we lay flat on
our backs on the high school baseball field as fireworks exploded literally
over our heads. We were filled with
eternal goodwill and high spirits, surrounded by people we did not know but
with whom we imagined we shared a bond.
This is not what
we just passed through in August 2020.
knows, I hope, that there is a distance between the America seen on television
and the America as it exists. But the gap is so wide now as to make both sides
of the story – the Fox side, let’s say, and the MSNBC side – pure propaganda. And by definition, propaganda means something
that isn’t true.
side, broadly speaking, makes it clear that America today is a vibrant culture
of folks who believe in the America dream, are industriously going about their
business, and having to fight off the socialism of lazy-ass liberals and
assholes who want you to wear masks – oh, and they blow up cities. The MSNBC
view is of a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, tolerant group of maskers working
toward a just society despite having to fight off the totalitarianism of Trumpers
and hayseed crackers with Confederate battle flags. And both groups have found
a way of working with COVID.
what my kids and I saw, COVID and politics have put America on the mat.
This is now a country of people who wear masks and people who don’t. About half
don’t. But which half? We conducted a scientific car survey outside the Navajo
territory of western New Mexico. A car survey is when you’re at a travel/gas
rest stop and you’re in the car waiting for a son or daughter to finish going
to the bathroom or buying the necessary Starburst, water, coffee, and Hershey
drops. The rest of us, lounging in the car, start counting. Here’s the result:
going into the rest stop who was wearing a mask was brown. Everyone who was not
wearing a mask was white. This is despite the big “YOU MUST WEAR A MASK TO
ENTER” sign that is posted, literally, on every business door in America, much good
And that is
pretty much how we saw it go across the country. Half of the people wear masks
and half of them don’t, and the ones who go without are invariably white. That
doesn’t mean, however, that they’re blind to the power of COVID. No one is
blind about that. How can anyone be?
Just look around.
schoolyards are deserted, and schools are starting to look like they could use a
coat of paint. The playing fields are empty, and we didn’t see one baseball or
pick-up soccer game. As a result, the streets are pretty much deserted as well.
There are few places to even pull over and have a picnic, so we did most of our
rest stop picnicking in our car, or in sad and depressing public benches in the
middle of nowhere. We felt like characters in a “Twilight Zone” episode, where the
characters have landed in an alien earthling exhibit but the alien curators
forgot to put in the people.
we went, there were few public restrooms and no restaurants or coffee shops or
fast food outlets you could sit in. Almost all food is from drive-thrus,
because who else can stay open? (I’ve seen these TV commercials where plucky entrepreneurs
keep their deli open and are popping out to deliver curbside pick-up, but we didn’t
see anything like that; mostly I saw deserted small towns and Wal-Marts with a
fifth of the parking lot full).
however, cops. There are cops everywhere. They’re staked out in speed traps and
they cruise slowly through deserted towns. They don’t look friendly, but then,
small town American cops haven’t looked friendly in years – they’re so tricked
out like they’re doing battle in Fallujah, it’s best to stay the hell away from
them no matter what happens to you.
If you stay
in hotels, you have to clean your hotel room first – making sure everyone is
using masks as they do so. And bring your
own fan. If you’re camping, you have to avoid your fellow campers, who are
almost certainly not wearing masks and are super friendly and ready to shake hands
because they’re testing you: are you one of them, or one of us?
This is life
on the road: gas, wash hands, drive-thru, wash hands, drive, gas, wash hands,
pee break, wash hands, keep driving, watch for cops, drive through deserted towns,
find somewhere to stay, clean it, eat drive-thru, hit the road the next
morning. And watch for cops.
There are no
cultural exhibits open, and there certainly aren’t any museums. There’s nowhere
local to stop and eat. Nothing that
makes the bleakness of America wonderful or intriguing. It’s all closed. Most
of it is probably out of business.
there were a clearer example of a failure of leadership, I can’t imagine what it
is. I’m not just talking Trump and his
maniacs. That’s too easy. I’m talking all of them. All of them. But how could this happen, when
the country is run by such smart people?
leads me to why we were on this trip in the first place.
taking my daughter to Washington DC so she could move into her first apartment.
She’s a student at American University, and five days before AU reversed its
stance on in-person classes, my daughter and three of her friends had to sign a
year-long lease in DC due to the cutback in dorm options. Then the University
dropped its inevitable bombshell (online classes), and all these kids have been
left stuck in apartments they didn’t really need in a city they didn’t need to
live in. Oh well. One must love academy planning.
the thing: it’s DC, right? This is where
the power brokers live, as well as most of the folks we’re seeing on MSNBC and
Fox and CNN every night. This is where it’s all coming from.
world took our breath away. The lovely
Georgian homes in Chevy Chase, Bethesda, downtown Washington, and Georgetown;
$4,000,000 Tudor cottages nestled within gorgeously and shrewdly manicured ivy
and weeping willows, immaculate Regency townhouses, literal mansions on grassy
hills, and highrise condos overlooking the Potomac. This is the way to live.
And they do.
These are the homes of all the folks I watch on television every night like an
idiot. The folks who either work for the
government in some way or are retired with a book or podcast deal, or they are,
literally, the actual headline stars on cable news. I won’t even get into the
535 members of Congress. They’re living in those houses too, and their world – outside
of having to wear a mask at Starbucks – looks to be going pretty good.
So our trip
was a slingshot around this oasis, and it made us wonder just who is complicit
in what, and just how this country got to such a state with all those smart people
And… do they
folks know, for instance, that you’ll see more Trump-Pence signs and
Confederate flags in western Pennsylvania than you’ll see in Tennessee? Maybe
they just stick to the old stereotypes on that one. Do they know that much of southern
Illinois looks like it’s decided to shut down for pretty much the rest of the
century? Or that Oklahoma is the winner of the COVID Denial Award? In one
of its most prosperous suburbs, we discovered not just that we were the only
ones wearing masks, but that whole sit-down restaurants were fully open and
tables were packed side by side. At least, I guess, it’s activity and human
contact. No Twilight Zone here, although I suspect about 20% of them are going
to die within the next fifteen days.
What we saw,
in short, was a country that simply isn’t functioning anymore. It’s waiting for ‘something’ to happen. It doesn’t
know what, but something has to happen. The question is, is it going to be a
good thing or a bad thing?
that this has been allowed to happen is a national crime. That the system is so
poorly designed that one mentally ill moron in the White House can do so much damage
– and that the system is so ill-equipped and its leaders so weak that he has the
power to do so – is pitiful. That we blame so much of our current disaster on
the one moron is even more pitiful.
We all know
what a ghost town is, but whoever heard of a ghost country?
phrase answers the question my sons posed.
What was that?
America. Gone. And this is before the Civil War to come. It’s to weep.