Once violets and vaccines had bloomed across the Midwest, we gassed up the orange hatchback and headed east, then west, and then south, putting more than 4000 miles on the odometer, reminding ourselves what North America looks like these days. and visiting family members we hadn’t seen for more than a year. Near the end, in the heat wave, our sturdy little car’s air conditioner wavered and then broke down crossing Iowa, but our adventure was a success.
En route to far-flung branches of the family, we passed through nine states with their beautiful and varied landscapes, towns, and cities. Pulling off the highway for a meal or a motel, we glimpsed people making worthy things, reopening shops and restaurants, tending to family gardens, gathering once again around grills in community parks and stirring on college campuses. There were bountiful displays in food stores and farmer’s markets, and elegant paths lined with blossoms in each city’s botanical garden. Revived museums reminded us that they were stocked with beautiful objects reflecting our nation’s creativity and passion. Rows of corn grew straight and tall across broad farm fields, and trucks reflecting our industry were in restless motion across the web of highways. Cloudbanks opened and drenched the soil, promising a good harvest. There was much to be proud of, much to be grateful for, most of all the chance to reground ourselves in friendship and family.
But clues about our country’s shortcomings were just as easy to spot. In three states we caught wind of the huge, smelly CAFO sheds and feedlots housing hundreds of cramped farm animals. Each CAFO sent a steamy outhouse aroma downwind for a few hundred yards, degrading the lives of animals as well as the honorable profession of farming. In front of some houses, fluttering high on flag poles and proud on yard signs, profanity-laced political slogans assaulted our eyes and hearts. Historical markers at western highway rest stops failed to speak clearly and forthrightly about the history they address. The phrase “Indian troubles” was as close as one historical marker dared get to the complexity of the region’s history. Beside those two words a passerby, scratching the metal sign with a car key, had proposed this alternate wording, “You mean genocide?” Some museum rooms were stocked with posh, glittery objects owned or commissioned by the wealthy, ignoring or even silencing the lives that most people have lived here. In some places, poverty and segregation have put down deep roots. Radio stations in city after city trumpeted their messages using the 20th century’s most potent propaganda methods—chanting slogans, abusing political enemies, distorting the news, undermining necessary, hard-won institutions and customs. These propaganda methods were so commonplace across our Midwestern airwaves that it became hard to keep noticing how poisonous they are. In line at a grocery store, many Americans seemed to have given up on making small talk with strangers.
What’s it add up to? The beautiful sights on this journey were very beautiful, the menacing things were quite menacing, and it wasn’t clear that as a people we know how to have the necessary conversations, not clear that we dare look in the mirror or speak forthrightly. It’s not just that we could do better, should do better, it’s that down the current path lies more alienation and suffering. The current path won’t do.
Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook