We drove 3,176 miles across the United States from San Francisco to Vermont. Most of the time we listened to a marvelous podcast called “American Elections: Wicked Game” which covered every American Presidential election from Washington to Biden. Our son Walker suggested this as an ideal travel companion as we drove across the heart of America. He was right. We were riveted the whole time and as we listened, the miles of our journey and of our history just melted away. As we pulled up to our place in Vermont, we finished listening to exactly half of the 58 episodes of the series. Perfect timing for the return trip!
As we drove through the West early on our recent journey, I read a story online from the San Francisco Chronicle about how California, and especially the Bay Area, have been able to lessen the spread of Covid infections and how California currently has the lowest infection rate in the country. As we drove through places like Nevada, Wyoming and Nebraska we were shocked and saddened by an almost total lack of people wearing masks indoors. In the Bay Area, most people even wear masks outdoors, especially on crowded streets. I began to understand how people in the Bay Area have normalized mask wearing while people in other parts of the country have not. I also began to understand how California has been able to beat back the Covid virus and how hard it will be to create the norm for masking in other parts of our vast and diverse country. Perhaps, because the Bay Area was the nation’s ground zero for the earlier pandemic of HIV/AIDS we have learned to work with and trust science and medicine in ways that some other parts of the country have not.
Along the way, we also saw big brawny guys in jeans and leather vests riding huge Harley Davidson motorcycles zoom by us on the freeway. Each had a woman sitting behind them dressed the same way. All of them were white but the sun and wind had turned their skin lobster red. And, of course, none of them wore a motorcycle helmet, let alone a mask. Perhaps, the defiance to wearing motorcycle helmets is the same as the defiance to wearing masks. It is a visible “fuck you” to authority, even if it kills the people flipping off society.
Creating positive norms are a tricky thing in our troubled times. How can we move beyond the hate ginned up by Fox News, hate radio and crazy internet conspiracy theories? Especially when some people can profit from generating fear. The “Wicked Game” podcast describes several times in our past where anger, fear and passion have overridden common sense in parts of the United States. One of the quotes from the podcast is “Fear is contagious, but so is hope”. We don’t know how this tearing of our American social fabric will play out. Our culture has gone down the path of madness before. But the universal basic decency of most Americans that we met on our journey struck me as a reason for hope. When we traveled almost exactly half-way across the country, we stopped at a small museum in Gothenburg, Nebraska. It was an old Pony Express Station, and it was staffed by a local volunteer who was enthusiastic and disarmingly plain spoken in his wonderful mid-Western accent. The only other person in the small cabin was a man who had just driven from Boston to this half-way spot of America. For a moment I felt a strange uplifting unity for our country coming together in this small Nebraska town. We spent a night in Chicago visiting our dear friend photographer Terry Evans, one of the great photographers of this region. She was a part of our earlier Water in the West project. Having dinner with her was one of the highlights of the trip.
After a quick stop at the fascinating Erie Canal, we continued our journey east. We knew we would get into our hotel in Buffalo, NY quite late. We had brought food for most of our journey but by this point we were a little tired of avocado and veggie burger sandwiches and decided to get some take-out. Ellen found a middle eastern restaurant in Erie, NY and as I drove through the darkened streets of this burned-out, rust-belt town I began to feel a little uncomfortable. The restaurant was run by a refugee from Jordan and the food turned out to be some of the best middle eastern food we have ever had. I have always felt that it is often the immigrants coming to our country “yearning to be free” that provide the spark, optimism and hope that a sometimes cynical and weary America needs.
We will spend the next few weeks resting after our long journey to rural Vermont. I can think of no better place to watch apples falling from the trees and see the amazingly green grass grow. We will be taking a few day trips around New England and even do some work down in Boston. Around mid-October, we head to Washington, DC and then, depending on the Covid situation in the South, make the long drive back home driving through Dixie. Until then…