A road trip across the United States is, in many ways, a tour of bloody and brutal colonialism.
I just completed a 10-week work-from-the-road trip with my partner, Michael. We started the trip in New Jersey, drove west across the northern midwest until Utah, looped back across the south to North Carolina and then up to the mid-Atlantic. It was, of course, a spectacular privilege and pleasure. This country is stunningly beautiful. I have seen, eaten, and experienced things in the past three months that I will never forget.
I set out on this trip with the intention to engage the complexity of the places we visited in full. Rather than whitewashing the experience into a collection of glossy, smiling photos, I wanted to live the full spectrum of joy and despair. I aimed to think critically about the impact of my travels, and of American culture, on the people and ecology of a place. And unsurprisingly, this resulted in a lot of conversations about oppression.
For example: from my father’s green lawn in central Pennsylvania we made our way to visit an old friend in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Chagrin Falls is a charming little town outside of Cleveland named for the thundering waterfall in the middle of downtown. You know the kind of place – a main square dotted with quaint boutiques and foodie restaurants, surrounded by lush neighborhoods full of Victorian homes and overflowing gardens. The town is 97% white and has a median income of over $180,000 and is also home to a small historically Black community called Chagrin Falls Park. Thanks to decades of redlining and racist zoning, the once thriving community is smaller than ever, and although it is located in Chagrin Falls, students from the neighborhood must attend a neighboring town’s schools rather than Chagrin Falls schools.
From there we moved on to Wicker Park Chicago, a bustling neighborhood where we got some excellent shopping, vegetarian food, and our best cocktails-with-a-view of the trip. Of course, Wicker Park is one of Chicago’s most notorious sites of gentrification, and as a result witnessed some of the most intense Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago this summer.
Fast forward to the Black Hills of western South Dakota, an enormous, mountainous national forest that rises eerily out the prairie as you drive west. This place is an important sacred landscape for three nearby Indigenous nations, the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Omaha. It is also the striking rock formations of the Black Hills where a white sculptor famously carved four white U.S. Presidents, all four of whom oversaw massive genocide of/land theft from native people. Just 15 miles from the infamous Mount Rushmore stands the Crazy Horse Memorial, a similar monument to the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, who fought against the invasion of the U.S. Government on Lakota lands. The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear when his brother’s request to have Crazy Horse’s visage added to the then in-process Mount Rushmore was ignored. (We skipped Mount Rushmore, because Custer State Park was just too pretty to give up any of our time for anything else).
Onward to Colorado, where my brother Sam took us hiking and camping as the mountain aspens changed to their glorious golden autumn hue. The state is booming in popularity, as it has some of the country’s best opportunities for outdoor activity as well as one of the nation’s most established legal marijuana industries. Of course, this industry is dominated by white-owned mega companies making millions off the sale of marijuana while people of color all over the country are imprisoned for possession of the same plant.
Not long after, we made a brief stop in Arizona to see the universally awe-inspiring Grand Canyon and the hippie-dippie energy vortexes of Sedona. On the way, we drove through the eerie shell of the Navajo nation, where roadside stands that would normally sell Navajo jewelry and food and souvenirs stood empty. Navajo nation, as with many indigenous communities, has been disproportionately decimated by COVID-19 – in part because many Navajo families do not have access to running water or reliable healthcare or food resources.
We spent a significant amount of time in magical New Mexico, where the food is dripping in flavorful chile and the adobe buildings made me want to drop everything and move to Santa Fe. Of course, a scant 30 miles from Santa Fe’s charming square is Los Alamos, where the U.S. government convened top scientists to devise the bombs that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Soon after we visited Bentonville, Arkansas, an immaculate Pleasantville almost entirely bought and constructed by the Waltons of Wal-Mart. Bentonville is home to Crystal Bridges, one of the best museums of American Art in the world, where we gazed upon the works of Rothko and O’Keefe and Warhol. Wealth and comfort oozed out of every pore of the town, while disenfranchised whites and black descendants of Southern slaves across the rest of the state, the country’s 4th poorest, fought to make rent.
Later on we drove out of our way to Montgomery, Alabama, the home of several famous Civil Rights landmarks and also the birthplace of the Confederacy. The town is steeped in the history of black and white race relations in our nation, from the slave trade to the Civil War, public lynchings to brutal public responses to the Civil Rights Movement. In some strange way, in its openness about the complexity and darkness of its history, Montgomery felt like a more honest depiction of America than many of the other places we visited.
And so on and so forth. For every story of wonder and beauty that I have from this trip, I have experiences that challenged my beliefs and made me morally uncomfortable. This should not, I suppose, be surprising. Just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical place, to live or to travel, in a colonialist and racist world. And just as I struggle to figure out how to live a happy and comfortable life while also honoring my political beliefs, I struggle to understand how I can travel while honoring my political beliefs. The best answer I have come up with to date is simply this: it all starts with awareness.
To this end, rather than following the time-honored travel blog tradition of chronological stories of each place I visited on this road trip, I will instead explore the themes and questions that the trip raised for me as a whole. It will not be entirely doom-and-gloom – I have too many stunning pictures to share to ignore the many, many wonders of my trip! Rather, I hope to capture the America I witnessed: a messy, complicated mishmash of cultures and beauty and injustice and humanity and cruelty and love.