Seeing America, Whole

A strange thing happened as we pulled into our driveway in San Francisco at the end of our epic Library Road Trip, 2021. At exactly the same moment that we finished seeing our country whole, we also completed hearing the whole history of our country through the magnificent podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. We did not plan on this, nor did we ration listening to the 59 episodes to make this happen. Near the beginning of our journey, just as we drove into the driveway of our cabin in Vermont, we had finished listening to the first half of this long podcast. Now we had completed the entire program just as we finished our long and exhausting cross-country journey back to California. It was a thrilling way to complete a thrilling trip.

When we left Jackson, MS we headed west to Vicksburg, MS. Combined with the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Vicksburg is considered a turning point of the war. One cannot escape the legacy of the Civil War as you drive through the South. We had stopped at many places connected to that bloody conflict and every one of them leaves a deep and sorrowful impact on me. Vicksburg National Military Park is interesting because it is one of the most memorialized battlefields in the world. Every state, Union and Confederate, that had soldiers in this battle later erected all kinds of monuments to preserve the memory of their fallen sons. In my interest in containing memory through libraries and archives, this is another, heartfelt way of preserving the past.   

As we drove over the Mississippi River into northern Louisiana, the landscape and foliage abruptly changed. Mississippi is hilly and forested. This part of Louisiana quickly flattens out and the vegetation turns from forests to farmland. I had photographed in this part of the South during my 2011 Library Road Trip with our son Walker and his friend Nick Neumann. As we were driving through the poor and mostly African American community of East Carroll, LA I spotted the public library that I had photographed in 2011. Of course, we made a quick stop there and I marveled at the continuity of the positive impact libraries make on struggling communities. As in 2011, this library is an oasis in a place that continues to experience hard times.

We had a long drive as we continued north and west into Arkansas. Ellen and I mostly listened to music, podcasts and talked about what were seeing and what it all means. We also had a long time to listen to the sounds of silence and think. The landscape gradually changed as did the sky. As we headed northwest, we slowly, almost in perceptively, began to feel the rise of the Ozark Mountains. The sky progressively grew into darker shades of gray, threatening rain. As we began a steady ascent into the Ozarks, the rain began to fall with a force that we Californians had not experienced in a very long time. A Biblical deluge ensued as my white knuckles gripped the steering wheel and our Prius performed like a champ. Fortunately, the roads were good and most of the other drivers on the road were sane and slow. We pulled into our destination of Bentonville, AR with high fives and a big sigh of relief.

We came to Bentonville because of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was started by one of the members of the Walton Family which owns Walmart. This is one of the wealthiest families in America and Sam Walton started his first store here. This thriving community stands out from the otherwise depressed northwest corner of Arkansas. This is certainly a happy company town but feels oddly perfect, like something out of the movie The Truman Show. It was nice to see the Walton family investing heavily in this area even as Walmart challenges unions and pays its employees less than adequate wages. All of this was in the back of our minds as we met with a Museum librarian and showed her our public library album. The museum was magnificent with its incredible, world-class collection. We took it all in after our meeting and toured the Museum and the outside grounds.

The next day we drove on to Sallisaw, OK. This was the home of the Sequoyah’s Cabin Museum owned and run by the Cherokee Nation and is also a National Historic Landmark. We came here because a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented the first written language for his people in 1809 and it is still in use today. His achievement was one of the few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system. His creation of the syllabary allowed the Cherokee nation to be one of the first North American indigenous groups to have a written language. It became a model for other Native written languages. For a time, the Cherokees were more literate than the surrounding white settlers. They called their written information “talking leaves” and they understood that a mastery of a written language was also a valuable form of power. The Cherokee are a great and complicated people. Ten percent of them owned Black slaves before and during the Civil War and some of the Cherokee were allied with the Confederacy during the war. None of this takes away from the great accomplishment of Sequoyah but it does point to the complexity of history.

Later that day we drove into the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK. Exactly 100 years ago, white citizens of Tulsa bombed, burned and shot up the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, producing one of the largest and worst episodes of racial violence in the history of our country. One of the places destroyed in the massacre was the Black segregated public library of Greenwood. I located the exact address and photographed the large, luxury apartments that are being built on the spot today. Despite gentrification the neighborhood still contains memories of its past. I discovered embedded in the street several plaques naming the store owners whose businesses were destroyed a century ago. The train tracks are still there that separated the races in segregated Tulsa. Greenwood was called the Black Wall Street at the time because of its thriving economic community. But it was odd to see a giant U-Haul truck advertisement over a neighborhood where people had once been forced to flee for their lives. The best part of our visit was the newly opened Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center which did a wonderful job of providing the context for what we saw.

After driving west from Tulsa, we crossed an invisible boundary somewhere near Oklahoma City. Slowly the land dries out and aridity overcomes humidity. This is where the west became the West. We spent the night in Amarillo, TX located in the High Plaines. It is where vast cattle ranches meet towering wind farms. Just west of Amarillo is a world-famous art piece called Cadillac Ranch. Several artists including Chip Lord created this iconic masterpiece. It visually stands out in this severe and austere Western landscape. It is in glaring contrast to the homogenized corporate road culture in this part of the world. Such a breath of eccentric fresh air in an increasingly conformist world!

The soul crushing, corporate America, road culture was beginning to catch up with us by this time. Endless motel hallways and endless chain stores can drain the life out of anyone after a while. We were in real need of connecting again with friends and unique places.

We arrived in the afternoon in a little bit of paradise south of Santa Fe called Galisteo, NM. Here, our friend Caroline and her partner Angie along with their very large dog Gordon Cole live in a community of artists, writers, teachers and retirees in rural New Mexico. Caroline’s father wrote the book Cherokee Tragedy about the terrible Trail of Tears. We have been following parts of that trail since we left Georgia. From there the original Cherokees and other Native people were forced to walk over 5,000 miles to their new homes in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. President Andrew Jackson spearheaded this tragedy and I still don’t understand why he is on our $20 bill. Maybe it’s time to replace him with Sequoyah? We also visited with our dear friends Meridel, Jerry and Ben. Such a talented and unique group of folks in this part of the world! Just in the nick of time, this was the elixir we needed to escape the mind-numbing monotony of corporate America.

Beautiful Silver City, NM was on the way to our next appointment in Tucson. It was an early mining town that has kept mining but has diversified with hipster coffee shops and outdoor recreational activities. Although we only stayed one night, I would love to come back and explore the large surrounding area called the Gila National Forest. Our short hike through a park that was a former mining area was spectacular.

We finished the “work” part of our journey by showing our public library album to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. We also talked with the Center about our Water in the West archive which has been housed there for the last twenty years. This was a large collaborative project that we did with several other photographers in the 1990s. The archive is now part of the Center’s permanent collection. Later that evening, we drove to Tempe, AZ to stay with two more dear friends Mark and Emily.  

We once again entered California in a time of drought. I came up with the idea of the Water in the West project during an earlier drought in the West in the 1980s. On this trip, giant electronic signs flashed out the warning “Conserve Water. Extreme Drought” in Arizona and California. Despite the recent “atmospheric river” of record-breaking rain in Northern California, the drought continues. Our last stop on our epic journey was to visit the vast Carrizo Plain National Monument. Located just west of the San Joaquin Valley, it contains a large,  ephemeral Soda Lake and the mighty San Andreas Fault. It also is home to a vast sky and a serene, beautiful and very dry coastal California landscape.

We arrived home after driving 9,882 miles. Starting in mid-September, we drove from San Francisco to Vermont to Washington, DC to the South and then back home through the Southwest. We heard the context of our country throughout the trip by listening to the essential podcast “American Elections: Wicked Games” by Lindsay Graham (no, not that Lindsay Graham). It has been a privilege to see our country whole and we hope to take the images and writing from this trip and apply them to future ideas and books. We feel that to better understand America, it is important see it. It helps to get out of our bubbles and interact with the range of people that make up our country. It is important for us to be able to soak up the history of this place by physically standing in places of consequence. I love photography because it forces us to do that.

We did, in fact, see amber waves of grain. We also saw purple mountains majesty. Heck, we even saw some fruited plains. America is always a work in progress. Are we poised on the edge of an ideological civil war? Or do we, as a people, have more in common with each other than separates us? What if both are true? This trip has spent a lot of time exploring our country’s collective memory through historical sites, archives and libraries. Our hope is that the work from this journey will help us listen to each other. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address he spoke of the “mystic chords of memory” as a way to unite the Union at the moment when it was falling apart. Our national collective memory is still important, and this trip was our small way of bringing us together. We will see…

We are pretty tired right now after zooming around the country for almost two months. As we lay down our wings to rest, I noticed on the streets of San Francisco that a little angel had done the same.

1 Comment

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One response to “Seeing America, Whole

  1. Catherine Sullivan

    I am saving these as they are a lot to contemplate in one sitting. They are moving as they are soul searching. Thanks for including me on this and hope to come up with a better response! Glad you both returned safely! Catherine

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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