Leaving the Bubble
Road trips always sound romantic. Freedom. Spontaneity. Scenery. Togetherness.
All of these things sparked my enthusiasm when my partner asked me if I’d like to drive across the country to deliver his daughter’s car to her in North Carolina. We could take our time – hit a few destinations and visit some family and friends.
I’d driven before from NY to SF out of necessity, in a rapid race across the plains. There hadn’t been time to seek out unique places, or stroll new streets, or take photographs. So, this idea appealed to me. A chance to escape the California bubble where I was starting to succumb to the usual litany of complaints – traffic, cost of living, crowds, safety…did I say traffic?
Soon summer rolled around, and we neglected to plan too far ahead. The concept seemed simple – pack up the car, water the plants, head southeast. We’re not the types to create complex itineraries, book ahead or notate guidebooks. We simply calculated hours in the car dispersed over days we had allotted and major stops we wanted to make – high school friends in Salt Lake City; a brother in Colorado Springs; a gravesite in Missouri (more on that later); more friends in Beaufort and the Spanish Moss of Savannah. (Click for more photos)
We came up with a loose itinerary and made no hotel reservations until the night before. Thanks to Google, Expedia, Yelp, Waze and Spotify we gleefully clicked our way through the states: Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Such diverse landscapes from desert flats to snowy peaks; enormous trees and cornfields; brackish swamps and red rock arches; mighty rivers and salt lakes. Diversity! It’s not just our history, it’s our habitat.
Most memorable and impressive for me was looking up and seeing not skyscrapers and fog but parades of clouds past bright blue backdrops and rolled haybales looking like landscape art for cows. I was under the false impression that museums held the prizes of civilization, but out on highway 70 from Utah to Colorado we saw ancient sculptures in red rock. And in the low country, painterly strokes of green grass in marshy waterways comparable to Monet’s Lily Ponds. Enthralled by the morphing scenery, my heart broke a little each time the perfect image whizzed by, posing for a more patient photographer.
We did, however, stop long enough to stroll through the Garden of the Gods; attend the Central Kansas State Fair; taste the Great Salt Lake; see Eisenhower’s birthplace; tour the Biltmore Estate; hear some Nashville Blues; swim in the Atlantic and much more. Along the way we chatted with strangers, like a couple from Nebraska at our Kansas B&B. We congenially discussed gun control immediately after the racially motivated shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, TX. We learned the story of a couple from Arizona who bought a house via the internet in La Belle, Missouri; and a man from North Carolina who once jumped on a freight train for adventure but couldn’t get off until Ohio.
We found all these people to be quite optimistic and open-minded, like most of our friends at home. They were friendly and inquisitive, impressed by our adventures as if we were reverse pioneers. I felt more like a seamstress—placing a stitch each time we crossed a state line, hoping to keep these relationships from fraying due to political friction.
Another discovery along the way was the grasp of history – both familial and national. This trip vividly pointed out to me that we each possess a personal story of how we got to where we live – and at the same time we share a common story as Americans. On one stop in La Belle, Missouri, we found the two-story home where my partner’s grandmother was born in 1905 and the local park where her father pulled her on a sled. In 1926, she eloped with her childhood sweetheart and drove to Modesto, CA to start their new life. Her grandson ended up living in Japan but returned to San Francisco to raise his own kids (and consequently met me!)
On our journey we saw battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, western pioneer trails, murals about prohibition, homes of famous authors, important sites in the Civil Rights Movement, a billionaire’s estate, a presidential library, a WWII battleship – all reminders of our nation’s birth and evolution. Anyone walking on the same lands and streets and floors of our ancestors can imagine the past taking place. But as citizens of this country, we also enjoy a special ownership of this past and an obligation to foster its development. That becomes more obvious when you drive from “sea to shining sea”.
I guess what I am saying is that it’s easy to become exclusive—especially in San Francisco, where you’re always looking towards the ocean and the rest of the country is far beyond the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Making assumptions about the South and the Midwest is a habit that we fall into when isolated, and a bubble is a cozy place.
But it really didn’t take that much effort to expand those horizons. We had the opportunity to traverse eleven states in twelve days. Maybe you can only afford a week or a short flight, but I encourage you to see more of America. See more of its vastness and complexity and meet more Americans. Don’t rely on tweets and headlines to tell you where we came from and who we are. Be curious.