A year-and-a-half ago, my wife and I traded full-time work and a roomy house for a pick-up truck and a 24-foot travel trailer. We hit the road, living the retiree’s dream, heeding Paul Simon’s long-ago call “to look for America.”
Over time, I’ve come to think of our journey – and the weekly columns I’ve produced along the way – in terms from a Social Studies class: geography, history and current events. So, class, what have we learned so far?
Geography: I’ve hiked through alpine meadows in Montana and kayaked through Louisiana bayous. I watched the sun rise on Maine’s rocky coast and set on the other side of the mighty Mississippi. I’ve communed with wood storks in South Carolina and wild horses in New Mexico. Along the way, I’ve learned again about the natural wonders of this continent.
Many things divide Americans, but the land unites us. If you want to feel better about America, reconnect with the land, either at the state park a short drive away, or in some faraway state you’ve never been to before. You won’t regret it.
Geography teaches that every place has its own story. I’ve visited ghost towns and booming cities, fancy resort towns and a lot of places whose better days are long gone. Each tells a story of economics, infrastructure, immigration and out-migration. Sometimes luck determined whether they boomed or went bust, but sometimes it was local leadership, of the lack of it.
History: Between my first and second visits to New Orleans, a statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from a prominent square. In Charlottesville, I found him covered with black plastic. I ran into arguments about Confederate monuments all across the South.
This, I think, is mostly a good thing. People in the South are engaging with their history with new energy. Museum curators are focusing more on the experiences of enslaved people; guides are sharing the bitter tales along with the sweet; parks commissioners and municipal leaders are reconsidering decisions made by their predecessors about who should be honored in public parks, and how the signs nearby interpret it. Each of those decisions requires thinking about history which, done right, is a powerful tool for community-building.
The birth of new memorials is as interesting as the removal of old ones. In Wilmington, N.C., a monument now commemorates a white supremacist coup and massacre that were swept under the rug for 100 years. At the Little Bighorn battlefield, a monument now recognizes the Native Americans killed there, not just Custer’s troops. Every new monument tells a story that honors the past and enriches our understanding of where we come from.
History unites us when we tell everyone’s stories.
Current events: I haven’t chased news events, but I found some along the road. I ran into wildfires in Montana and Barack Obama’s first post-presidency speech in Boston. I crossed paths with Donald Trump in Nashville and caught a town hall meeting with Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke outside Austin. There’s no escaping politics these days, especially if you get your news and views from the phone in your pocket.
So where do Americans stand 18 months into the Age of Trump? I’m no pollster, and my random interactions with people in far corners of the country are far from definitive.
I can tell you that just about everyone I’ve met on the road has been nice, and that most people don’t like talking politics with strangers. If you want to get in an ugly argument, go online.
I can tell you that there are blue enclaves in every red state, and red voters in every blue neighborhood. I’ve grown sick of the red state/blue state shorthand. It turns people into stereotypes and erases voters whose candidates come in second. It slaps a permanent political identity on state electorates that are always changing. Americans are complicated; if you want to understand them, don’t color-code them.
I can tell you that people who were excited about Trump in 2016 are still with him. Those who were against him then like him even less now. The people who are undecided haven’t been paying attention. I can say with certainty that come November, when we vote on it, it won’t be unanimous.
We’re divided over President Trump, for sure. The loudest voices in the room – culture warriors, media screamers, partisan hacks and social media nasties – would like to divide us over everything else.
I’m not done traveling – Alaska is next on our journey – but from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say Americans are more united than they appear on TV. We’re united by the land, by our history, our culture and the common decency that comes out when we meet each other face-to-face.
But don’t take my word for it: Get out on the road and see for yourself.
— Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.