As I crammed into the elevator with a half dozen people for the ride twelve floors up to my Manhattan office it was hard not to notice that every last person was frantically tapping away at their phone. It was a heady reminder of why I went out on the road. Before a phalanx of critics shriek hypocrisy and remind me that I Instagrammed my entire trip, allow me to suggest that I am not a luddite and we can peacefully coexist with these technologies and the world around us. My purpose was to get outside of the screen, put New York in the rearview mirror, and see how we were doing out there.
The other reason I was craving America was most assuredly political. Like so many others, I felt like my brain was being ground to databyte-sized sawdust by the onslaught of bad news. Nothing felt real and it seemed like there was no escape. So I did.
I am married to a scientist. I understand that five days and a handful of conversations doth not a scientific survey make. On the other hand I am a writer and my unique professional skill is observation. Do I know there is anger and racism, hatred and division hiding around every corner? You bet. That's not what I went looking for. I just wanted to see for myself – a random straw poll if you will – how America was feeling during these turbulent times. Here's what I learned.
Always, first and foremost, people can be good – and friendly, civil, and curious. Order a grilled shrimp po'boy at a rural Lousiana roadside shack and mention you are from New York and you will draw a crowd. The kids who worked at this cafe happened to be recovering addicts brought together by a charitable organization. We talked for an hour. The sandwich was delicious, their sense of hope elevating. I learned more from them about the pain of addiction than I have from the last 50,000 words I've read on the opioid crisis.
In Artesia, New Mexico, over the best green chili stew and spicy pork adobo I have ever tasted, my waitress Patty enlightened me about the desire for work and the realities of immigration. Maybe all diplomacy should be done over local food in a roadside cafe. The enchiladas were delicious, too.
I am a shameless ambassador for Hampton Inn and every morning started with breakfast shared with ordinary Americans crisscrossing the nation. It's amazing the things you hear when you put down your screen. Conversation is a lost art and if you just give someone the opportunity, they inevitably have a story to tell. (And if you keep your ears perked up in the truckstop men's room stall, you will hear about shootings, DWIs, affairs – a regular litany of country song lyrics. If I knew more than three chords, I'd have an album!)
Is it all fall-off-the-bone tender ribs and roses out there? Nope. I saw plenty of desolation on the great American two-lane. I could go back tomorrow and start tracing the history of every cinderblock shack that began as someone's bright tomorrow and ended up a page of weather-splintered history, a footnote to a simpler day.
When I travel like this I take a lot of pictures, plenty of gravel-strewn U-turns to capture something I saw going by in a blur at 60 per. A back roads road trip is a window into how people live somewhere you don't. I saw in people's front yards: oil rigs, cattle, cotton fields, 18 wheelers, a llama – every single rusted out first car you drove in high school! The list goes on and on.
There is always one photograph that got away and this time it was a little boy in rural Alabama one late afternoon. He must have been 12 and he was dressed in full Little League uniform, hitting balls off a tee all by himself next to the rundown doublewide that I assume he called home. Don't know where his team was, don't know where his folks were. This happened to be the day of March for Our Lives. I'm still thinking about that kid, that image. I hope he got to play.
I started out each day with my Rand McNally spread out next to my coffee, juice, eggs, toast and sausage gravy. Just the sight of an actual road map started plenty of lively dialogues. People were mesmerized by the analog-ness of it all and everyone had a recommendation. There's always one more road to be explored.
Maybe therein lies the beauty of the trip. It's not what you find out about people, but how much you don't know. The Internet has given us access to everything, but you can't GPS dreams. Give someone fifteen minutes. Trust me, they've got one.