The first time I ever drove cross-country, my only real objective was to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, and I wasn’t looking forward to the long hours and days behind the wheel. I mapped out the quickest route that I could find, and took off in a precariously packed minivan full of my worldly possessions with the goal of reaching Oregon in five days.
It turns out that the route that I thought would be the easiest was also the route that those who blazed trails long before me found to be the most practical as well. By the time I hit Nebraska, I quickly realized that I was following the general route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Following the railroad, with the train in my constant line of sight, it occurred to me that there was an entire history there that I knew very little about, a history that was crucial to the successful settlement of America. Prior to that moment, I had understood the importance of the railroad in theory, but there was something about literally keeping pace, face-to-face with that history that emphasized its significance in a way I had never considered before.
It wasn’t long after I diverted from that route north into Wyoming that I discovered that I was traveling the same route as the Oregon Trail. Similar to the railroad, I was again faced with an essential piece of American history that I knew little about. The farther west I went following the Oregon Trail, the more the rest stops started to double as historical markers. By the time I approached the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, learning about the horrors of westward migration become synonymous with stretching my legs. A layer below the initial digesting of that history, the colonial perspective of that telling also gnawed at me, as I knew that there was a whole other story within the saga of westward expansion that had not been inscribed on state-owned plaques at rest stops.
The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]
There was also something in the land itself that was commanding my attention– something unexplainable, a pull entrenched in the power of the wounds and stories and spirits of America. In connecting briefly to the history of the land, as one-sided as it was being reflected, I was quickly realizing my overall disconnect to these places as a whole. They themselves seemed to reflect that disconnect to me quite clearly, and the closer I got to my destination, the more I felt the urge to backtrack and explore.
By the time I made it to Portland, I felt like a stranger in my own country, but a determined stranger who wished to understand and befriend the unknown. That small taste of America had suddenly stirred up an enormous yearning, and my new surroundings in Oregon quickly started to relate and reflect the same themes and realizations that I had stumbled upon during the trip. Immersing myself in history wasn’t enough. I needed to meet the land, to understand these places from the bottoms of my feet. I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed to find, but I knew that I needed to search for it, and that need only grew stronger as time went on.
A few years later, time and money finally conspired in a way that was too precise to ignore, and I threw an old mattress into the back of my van and hit the road. I left with the intention of connecting with place and with history, of trying to understand my own complex relationship to the America I felt that I didn’t really understand. I wanted to learn from the places that made me feel as a stranger. I wanted know this land by its nooks and crannies.
I decided that my path would be dictated by both fate and curiosity, by signs and invitations alike. I was guided by paragraphs and articles in books and magazines, by roadside markers, by suggestions from friends and strangers and gas station attendants all the same.
From the time I first started out, those same people often asked me where I was going and why, and I quickly found that, while I understood my intent and motives, I didn’t necessarily have the language to express that to others. It was part pilgrimage, part adventure, part surrender, part obligation, part reconciliation, part sequel, and yet none of those things sufficed on their own as an explanation. After a few days of trying to explain it a variety of ways and seemingly failing every time, I simply told folks that I was “searching for America”, which seemed to be an acceptable answer no matter where I went.
The mouth of the Columbia River has been known among sailors for well over two centuries as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific.’ One does not have to be schooled in sailing to sense its treachery; simply standing at the edge of the mouth on a windy day puts one quickly in touch with the intensity, the enormity and mortality that emanate from this crucial intersection of river, sea, wind, and sky.
It is a notable place of both power and history, both as a port in itself and as part of the story of American expansion as a whole. The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1804 bunked down at this spot, and a few years later a party funded by fur magnate John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the West Coast. Reminders of that history and the wealth that accompanied it are reflected in the mostly well-preserved Victorian architecture dotted throughout the town. The town reflects both history and modernity, feeling neither gentrified nor stuck in time.
Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]
As I stood at the mouth, watching the bar pilots
guide a cargo ship through the treacherous channel, I thought back to something I had read about Concomly
, the Chinook chief who served as the original bar pilot for the Columbia in the early 1800s. Aside from the obvious technological advances, what I was currently witnessing on the river was essentially an unchanged ritual that had been performed regularly in this same spot for over 200 years now.
Thinking of Concomly, the question that approached me seemed to come from outside, from the mouth itself. What did Concomly call this river? This graveyard, this mouth of ghosts – what was her name?
I was only a few days into my trip, but it was already apparent to me that actively decolonizing my surroundings whenever possible on this journey was both a challenge and an obligation on my part, an obligation to the land and the ancestors as well as to myself. I knew from prior research that there was no single indigenous name that the Columbia was known by, and most of the names that had been recorded were badly translated and phoneticized. Nonetheless I wished at that moment that I had one of those names at the tip of my tongue. I wanted to greet the river properly without also invoking the name of a colonizer, but I resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have the ability to do so at that moment.
But while that specific name may not have been known or available to me at that moment, I also knew that the indigenous place-names of numerous lakes, rivers, and mountains throughout the country were well-known and were easily accessible information. From that point onward in my travels, I took it upon myself to revert to the indigenous names of the places I visited whenever possible, and to make notes and research specific places and place-names when the information wasn’t readily available.
“We’ve been staying here for well over two months now. My hope is to get back to New Mexico by the time school starts.”
She paused for a second, looking over at her two daughters across the table, who were distracted by a set of crayons and the activities on the diner placemat.
“But we need to stay for long as there’s decent work. School will do them no good if we can’t afford to eat.”
I had met Marcela and her daughters the night before, at a rest stop right outside of Fargo. Their family had been sleeping in the van next to mine, and it had been immediately obvious to me that they had been living at the rest stop for quite a while. I saw the father leave on foot before dawn and, instead of taking off immediately, I felt pulled to take Marcela and her kids out to breakfast.
I learned over breakfast that her husband was a migrant worker who was currently working in the local sunflower fields. She also worked in the fields on days when she could find someone to watch her girls, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone for at least a few weeks. They had been living out of the van for nearly two years at that point, with brief periods spent on and off with relatives near Santa Fe.
The sunflowers were the focus of my attention the day before, stretching for miles as I was driving down I-94 towards Fargo. When I first saw the sunflowers, I had spotted a few people out in the fields as well, and I had been thinking about the relative invisibility of migrant labor in this country on the drive into Fargo. So it seemed fitting that Marcela was the first person I found myself interacting with when I stopped.
Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. [Photo Credit: Hephaestos.]
I knew that there were an untold number of families just like Marcela’s, skirting on the edges of existence and survival, but there was something in listening to Marcela’s story that brought that struggle home for me. Hers was a story that so many know abstractly and yet so few actually hear.
I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space and time with this family, as heartbreaking as it was.
After breakfast I took them back to their van, said goodbye, and headed back out. A few miles down the road, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bunch of sunflowers. I looked out towards the farm and saw small dots out in the fields that I knew to be humans, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if one of the men out in the field was Marcela’s husband.
The first time I drove past the sign I though I must had read it wrong. I did a literal double-take as I passed it, somewhat convinced that I had just seen a sign for an astronaut and bicycle museum and concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me.
A half-mile later right before the exit, I saw the sign again, and it was no mistake. “Astronaut Deke Slayton and Bicycle Museum”, the sign said. I laughed out loud and turned off towards the exit.
Neil Gaiman has suggested that America’s roadside attractions are America’s most sacred sites, and I was finding more and more by the day that there was a deep truth to that sentiment. I had passed up on several other similarly quirky roadside attractions prior to that morning, but I had no immediate destination. It seemed the perfect day for such a detour. I wasn’t sure what bicycles and astronauts had in common and how or why this was being presented to the public, but I was curious to find out.
It turned out that what the two had in common was the town of Sparta itself. Sparta, Wisconsin was the birthplace of Deke Slayton, one of America’s first and most famous astronauts. Sparta is also known as the “Bicycling Capital of America,” and the museum was a rather impressive (and surprisingly cohesive) expression of those two aspects of transportation. I spent the afternoon unexpectedly immersed in the histories of both bicycles and space, appreciative of both the actuality of what was in front of me as well as the process that led me to this point. While the phrase “only in America” is so often reduced to meaningless cliché, it was the defining thought on my mind as I walked back from the museum to my van.
In finding that museum, not so much the exhibits themselves but the very existence of the museum itself, I found a piece of the unexplainable that I had been itching to immerse myself in.
I pulled up at the gas station, parked in front, and went inside the convenience store to grab a bottle of water. The front door was partially propped-open, and taped to the door was a huge sign. “No hoodies. No exceptions.”
I was wearing a hooded jacket. I pushed open the door the rest of the way to enter, and I immediately started to take off my hoodie as the bell on the door sounded my entrance. The woman behind the counter spotted me and waved me off. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with a smile. “I’m not worried about you.”
I stood for a moment in discomfort, wondering who she was ‘worried about.’ I then walked to the back of the store to grab a beverage and as my back was to the door the bell went off again. I looked over behind me, and a young Hispanic man was walking into the store. The woman looked up at him sternly and immediately pointed to the sign on the door. “Please remove your hoodie”, she said to him firmly.
I looked at her in horror, gave him a sympathetic look, and quickly made my exit without purchasing anything.
Back in the van, I tried to shake off my anger. I had been on the privileged end of racial profiling before, but there was something about the bluntness of that experience that caught me off-guard. I zoned out on the highway, driving what was quite possibly the straightest stretch of road that I’ve ever driven, to the point where my elbows started to ache for lack of movement. My heart ached along with my elbows, albeit for a different reason.
Pike County, KY
The roads are quite narrow through Appalachia, and navigating them requires a very specific attention to detail that I wasn’t used to in my travels. I spent so much time hyper-aware of my position on the road that I nearly missed a key aspect of my surroundings. Winding through the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country, I was quite taken by the stark contrast between the various rock formations and the lush green beauty.
It wasn’t until I pulled over to stretch my legs that took a wide-range inventory of the terrain that I noticed that I was at the base of a mountaintop mining operation, surrounded by what used to be mountains. While I had been aware on some level that mining companies actually remove the tops of mountains, it had only affected me as an abstraction until that moment.
This is ‘progress’, I thought to myself. We remove the tops of mountains.
Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: ilovemountains.]
I walked up a gravel path into the woods at the base of the mountain, and I was quickly overcome by how angry
the woods felt. It was as if a mist of despair and sadness and rage had enveloped this place around me. I felt angry back; I also felt absolutely heartbroken and disgusted. The actual brutality in how this practice affects not just the land itself but the people and the creatures who live here was all I could focus on as I stood there observing the the beauty around me, a beauty which emanated so strongly despite the sadness of the woods.
Later that afternoon, I stopped off for lunch. When I parked the van, a woman was getting into the car next to mine. She had a bumper sticker that read “I Love Mountains”.
“Are there any mountains left?” I asked her, nodding towards the sticker.
“Not for long at the pace they’re going,” she replied, the sadness evident in her voice.
The distance from the parking lot to the comfort station was less than fifty feet, but by the time I got to the entrance of the building, I had seen at least three separate signs warning me not to try to touch the bison. Inside the restroom, there was another prominent sign, and by the time I made it out of the building and up to the main patch of land overlooking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the number of bison warning signs I had seen had approached the point of repetitive absurdity.
Who in their right mind would try to touch a bison in the first place? I shook my head in amusement as I climbed up and looked out upon miles of badlands, the untouched wilderness peppered with picturesque herds of bison.
Then I noticed people out on the bluffs, trying to touch the bison.
And I realized that a dozen signs are no more effective than one or none or a hundred when it comes to overcoming the mentality of entitlement that so many feel in terms of our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. I was furious, watching the display of utter ignorance and disrespect in front of me, not to mention the danger. Suddenly I had no desire to stay and explore this place.
Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.
Walking back, I remembered a talk I had seen by a Native woman who spoke of the prevalence and pervasiveness of ‘settler mentality,’ especially in the American West. I glanced around at the parking lot, at cars bearing the license plates of at least a dozen states and thought back to the bison and what I had just witnessed. That entitlement, that defiant exercise of blatant disrespect, right there was a painful example of the pervasive behavior that she had spoken of.
Rock Springs, WY
I’ll admit that there wasn’t much that caught my eye as I drove into Rock Springs, but I also wasn’t there for the scenery. I was there to pay my respects to the victims of the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, where at least 28 Chinese immigrants were murdered and mutilated among an ugly backdrop of racism and greed. While the West is dotted with countless massacre sites, the Rock Springs Massacre had always stuck out in my mind as especially significant both in its barbarism and its political implications, and Rock Springs was one of the destinations that I had in mind from the very beginning of the trip.
My mistake was in assuming that there was a memorial.
I asked first at a gas station, and then I asked a few residents who had no idea what I was talking about at all. Eventually I came across the local history museum, where the man at the front desk embarrassingly assured me that there was no such memorial, although he “personally felt that there should be”.
I came here looking for something that did not exist, and the fact that it did not exist was extremely unsettling. Outside the museum, I watched the people walking to and from, realizing that they were mostly clueless about the horrifying carnage that once took place on these very streets.
I thought again of history and of colonization, and of the oft-repeated adage that history is written by the victors. I suppose that going to work each day is much easier when you’re completely unaware that there was once a massacre in the middle of your downtown. I suppose that to publicly recognize such a history would be more than a little inconvenient and uncomfortable, to say the very least.
The wind suddenly blew rather harshly as I stood there, and I could feel something extra in that wind. It was as though the land and the spirits themselves were screaming for recognition, screaming for justice.
I spent nearly six weeks on the road, visiting at least twenty states and traveling over 10,000 miles. When I finally got back, it took nearly as long to recover. I spent the next several months processing what I had taken in over the course of the trip. To this day, I find myself often drifting back to some of the people and places that I had come across along the way.
While I can’t say definitively that I found all the answers to my questions or discovered all I was looking for, it was an eye-opening and life-changing experience that greatly influenced my understandings and attitudes about this country, for better or for worse. Looking back, part of what I was searching for was a unifying energy, a linking thread of sorts that I never did find, but in not finding it I also came to see why it was not there in the first place.
More than anything, I came into and remained in touch with the anger and trauma of this land itself, one that is continuous throughout with so many of her wounds unacknowledged. That trauma, and the strong undercurrent of denial that feeds and sustains it, quietly expresses pain and consequences in ways that no history book could ever truly convey.
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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.