Looking for America

We have been on the road again. In a moment when our country seems to have lost its way, this is one way to try to find the “real” America that can be known through face-to-face encounters, smelling the air, walking the ground, and looking around at the expanse and intricate connection of people and things. We are desperate for encounters without media-tion.

We wound down from the Smokies, through road cuts brown with sleeping kudzu, to the banks of the Tennessee River where the Cherokee crossed on the Trail of Tears, expelled by President Jackson’s supporters 175 years ago. Today a river of trucks flows past the flanks of Lookout Mountain.

Though expelled, Native Americans left their names on rivers, mountains, dwelling places and sacred groves—Nantahala, Chattanooga, Ocowee, Tellico, and Tuscaloosa, where we stopped to spend the night.

A nearby graveyard beckoned us with its name of “Nature Garden,” but we only found a barren hillock longing for care, pining to be a place of peace for memory and connection. The land is burdened with uncared-for memories, dark as well as hopeful, held by the living as well as the dead.

In the restaurant both black and white as well as recent immigrants are eating at the tables served by high school kids struggling to learn the unspoken rules of table  etiquette and service. The colors have changed, the ladder of wealth has not.

The next day I look out to see a sign for James E. Chaney Drive in Meridian, Mississippi. My mind flashes back to 1964, when I was teaching at Philander Smith College in Little Rock and heard that he had been murdered up the road in Philadelphia along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman as they were helping people gain their voting rights. How many now remember?

Yet there is his name, like those of the Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw. Some remember their ultimately victorious struggle against the mendacious villainy that held their people in its grip.

And there is Medgar Evers Drive in Newton and the airport bearing his name in Jackson. Here are precious handholds in the climb we have not finished. We may slip, but their spirit catches us, holds us up, keeps us moving when a fashionable despair besets us.

In Vicksburg, as we near the Mississippi River, our GPS leads us to El Sombrero for a lunch. More than a lunch stop, it is a gaudy, over-the-top mélange of mosaic walls, carvings, festive lights, and welcoming faces. We are in a bit of Mexico, reminding us of craftsmanship, hospitality, and good food unencumbered by the walls that some might build to keep us from our common humanity. Yes, in Vicksburg. Come on down!

On our third day we reach the jam-packed roads of Dallas and Fort Worth, where the woods of the East give way to the plains of the West. We are here for a visit to the art museums of Fort Worth—the Kimbell, the Amon Carter, the Modern, and Sid Richardson’s Gallery of Remingtons and Russells. But there is more.

This is the two-week extravaganza of the annual Stock Show, where ranchers from far and wide come to see the latest on the hoof, on the wheel, and on the stage. Ten-gallon hats and fancy boots are formal wear. Parking is like searching for a mouse in the dark. But we manage to join the flow looking at Monet and a treasure lode of art from every time and place, drawn by oil wealth, beckoning our world to wider horizons and deeper sensibilities.

That night, in a humming restaurant in the arts district, we watch a dinner date between a fresh young man, surely from a ranching county, I surmise, swimming in a conversation with a lovely lass whose parents might have come from India or farther back from Africa. I can’t see the color of their eyes as they laugh, look away, and search for a possible future together. They are in the New World. It is still happening in America.

As I wander through the concrete fortress housing “modern art,” I see a field of color, form, and strange dismemberment. I think about how it makes of me an outsider. It is expression of the Other, the sojourner, the orphan, the fragmented world we struggle now to put together, instructions gone or in a foreign script, the purpose of the thing obscure.

Perhaps sometimes it succeeds in capturing our world, or at least our suffering. It seems to be a funeral rather than a celebration. We leave relieved to find nearby, yes, in Fort Worth, a tranquil Japanese Garden.

That’s right, if you ever get to Fort Worth, make sure you visit the Japanese Garden—four acres of planted serenity. Ponds connected by meandering streams are filled with gaping koi, asking for a crumb from your hand. It is a land at rest, singing, murmuring, giving brides and grooms a launching place for life together in the yin and yang of life. This is America, too. It was Sunday, We had church.

We head west with the morning commuters massed against us on the other side. Suburban homes give way to scrubby mesquite. The prickly pear appears among the dry yucca. Cattle meander among the bushes and the grasses. It’s Texas. But it’s not empty. The next four hundred miles are a revelation to our Eastern eyes.

But first, let me tell you how I lost and found my AMEX credit card. At a forlorn gas station the sun and sandy wind had baked the screen on the pump so I could hardly read it. Maybe in my confusion I left it there.

Seven miles down the road we turned back. It’s not at the pump. I walk inside, a look of credit-card-loss on my face. “I think I dropped…” “Your credit card?” smiled a young man beyond the counter. “We just found it on the floor. Must have dropped out of your pocket.” He didn’t ask for proof as he handed it to me. A man’s face is his word, his hand an emblem of sincerity. I was touching bedrock. The real person.

Texas is the country’s leader in wind power. We had heard that Texas-sized claim somewhere, but it is a different matter to drive into the center of the slowly flailing arms, mile on mile, squeezing power out of the invisible wind.

Oil Driller and Wind Turbines

At Sweetwater, the welcome sign is painted on an enormous blade of a turbine. Sweet water indeed. Among the fields now stretching into New Mexico, traditional oil pumps still bow down before the ground, extracting disappearing black gold while the endless air swims by the blades above.

That white stuff showing up on the edge of the road is cotton, now picked by giant harvesters that compress it into cargo-container bales. It goes on for miles of non-empty space. At one point a sign casually announces “No gas for 135 miles.” Plan ahead, as if no one would stop to help you, which, of course, they would.

That night we reach Artesia, New Mexico, a place we visited three years ago. We returned because it has devoted oil and gas wealth to public art, parks, and scholarships for their high school students. Here is where the American polis still struggles to survive.

It is a place (10,000 to 15,000 people) where face-to-face conversation, debate, and argument in pursuit of a visible and tangible common good can get a voice. It is in these largely disappearing small towns where generations of Americans learned the practices of self-government, of civil cooperation, of a law knitting people together though divided by family, clan, religion, class, and ethnicity.

It’s a town still knit together by the Bulldog mascot of the High School. But not without tensions. A heartfelt personal Christian piety competes with aspirations of civil unity. A refinery’s sweet and sulphurous smell reminds us of the price of fossil fuel dependence.

The public art of ranchers, rustlers, and vaqueros fashions forth a memory knit with craftsmanship and art. At the new public library, a huge mural has been installed rescued from a building in Houston at great expense.

Artesia Library mural and shelves full of library books

Here again, it presents an image of romantic memory in among the rows of books about Islam and Judaism, Aztecs and Apaches, ranchers and prospectors, geology and energy. It is another kind of church where we can deal with our memories, visions, fears, ignorance and aspirations.

On our last day we crawl south at the customary 75 miles an hour and on through Carlsbad, waving to the caverns where I had stood alone and awed three years ago. The sun and wind have conspired to strip away the vegetative flesh on earth’s bare bones, revealing the skeleton of planetary life.

This was once a reef along an inland sea 200 million years ago. Now it towers above us, shedding fossilized remains down slopes to the floor below.

Old tree with no leaves in Guadalupe Mountain

A national park stewards a portion of this vast escarpment. We take a walk to see the ruins of a stagecoach stop impudently erected for a year of service before the Civil War and railroads erased its claim—only 25 days of continuous travel from St. Louis to San Francisco.

There is only 100 miles of desert to El Paso, void of cellphone service but not, surprisingly, of trucks and cars. The ride is interrupted by signs pointing to perhaps mythical places. A dilapidated café of sorts interrupts the monotony, a Trump sign in the dirt outside, announcing that yes, we are open.

That night we rejoin the eternal Interstate and find our way back to our casita in old Mesilla, nestled on the Rio Grande beside Las Cruces, ready for another month of exploration in a “known unknown.” This too, is America. Perhaps, even, unmediated.