To Look for America: A Road Trip, a Soundtrack
I was raised by a history buff. A Civil War nerd. A father who dragged me from historical signs on the side of the roads all over the South to Lincoln’s birthplace and back to My Old Kentucky Home. A father who, on our trips to New York, likes to stop in Gettysburg and always plans on going back up there for July 4th. My mother is more of a homebody, my father the traveler. Me? I’m what I would call a lovely mix of in between. On a long trip, I enjoy the adventure. Before I leave, and again when I come back, I stick close to home, tucked up like a house cat. I travel with plenty of lavender oil and my Jax Teller blanket, heating pad and twinkle lights, making a nest out of my hotel rooms. I select a cozy road trip playlist, with a few songs that seem to make it on to every mix.
One thing I was taught about travel—because my father is a black man born in Alabama in 1950—was that there are safe places for black people to go and places that aren’t as safe. There are local places that aren’t safe, certain counties in Alabama, sections of Chicago. There are stories about the KKK being active in certain areas, the past harassment of family members, stories about how when my father’s family would make the trip between Louisville and Huntsville, there were few, if any, places to stop and eat that allowed black people to come inside, so my grandmother would feed my father and his siblings cold fried chicken in the car. And to this day, cold fried chicken reminds my father of those trips—the places where the blackness of his skin was and wasn’t “allowed.” Most black people have stories like this. Stories that are passed on from generation to generation. Not to turn down this street or another, to turn back once we see the rebel flag blazing, to not be caught after sundown in whatever counties/cities in Southern Indiana. Black people were literally banned in Oregon until 1922. And there was the Negro Motorist Green Book to help African-Americans “traveling while black.” I went to the Pacific Northwest for the first time some years ago and I didn’t see another black person. I felt safe there, but admittedly a bit lonely. At one point I thought I saw a black woman but I quickly realized it was merely my reflection.
“Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty
In June right before the summer solstice, my husband and I took our children, thirteen and ten, on a road trip from Kentucky to California and back again to look for America. I was a little nervous about traveling through some of those perceived super-white flyover states like Utah and Wyoming and South Dakota. I would’ve felt this way even when Obama was president, but I especially felt this way during the current administration.
“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
“Box of Rain” by Grateful Dead
I watch a lot of travel videos on YouTube, most of which are by men. The women are so often traveling with men, but not on their own. I was talking to my children about this, asking them why they think more women don’t make travel videos where they’re traveling alone all over the world. My children were quick to tell me it was because the women probably wouldn’t feel as safe as the men do, traveling around alone. Where are women safe? Where are black women safe?
“I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers
“Sinnerman” by Nina Simone
I went to a country concert in the deep South right after the 2016 election and had set the bar so low that I was pleasantly surprised no one threw bottles at me, set German Shepherds on me, or pulled out a high-powered firehose. I figured I would feel so much of what Paul Simon sang in “America.” “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why” even though I totally knew why. But! Nothing awful happened. And actually, it was quite the opposite. People were kind, said hello, like usual. On our summer road trip, I felt safe thinking that since some of the stops were American History monuments and tourist attractions, there would be more people of color than just me and my children. My husband is white, I am black, our children are biracial. I read a new story of racial violence pretty much every day. And not just racial violence but every kind of violence. Road rage murders, police officers not being charged for shooting unarmed black men, random stabbings, mass shootings, Facebook killings. And even with all of that being said, we still have plenty of safe places, don’t we? Maybe? I believe the most straightforward answer is both yes and no.
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
“Am I Wrong” by Nico and Vinz
We drove over six thousand miles across this country and back and I felt unsafe in only a couple places. Like in California, when our hotel was across the street from a scary-looking motel in a different part of town than I am used to. Or a tiny town in Arizona where I was the only black person. And again in small-town Indiana when an older white man began acting strangely and sat right next to us although there were plenty other empty tables. My daughter held my hand tightly as we walked down Venice Beach at sunset even though she’s thirteen and doesn’t reach out for my hand nearly as often as she used to. Even when I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, I reminded her how good it is to (safely) get out and see how other people live, to listen to how other people think, to leave both our real and imaginary borders, to open our eyes.
“Love Someone” by Jason Mraz
“All Kinds of Kinds” by Miranda Lambert
I always feel safer when I’m not the only person of color. I love going places and hearing more than two different languages being spoken, seeing a rainbow of people and sharing space with them, like when we waited for the sun to rise over the Grand Canyon—German, French, Spanish voices quietly lifting into the buttery dawn. I admit being surprised by how many black people I saw in Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota. I found America in those places. In natural food markets and clean McDonald’s bathrooms. And yes, I found America in the mountains and lakes and rivers and huge clear-blue skies and cloudy skies and the super-dramatic stormy skies of Kansas. I found it looking up at Mt. Rushmore, complete with its white supremacist history. America. I found it at 8,000+ feet in Laramie, Wyoming, at the Giant Head of Abraham Lincoln, too. South Dakota severe thunderstorm warnings and Culver’s. Minnesota car snacks and coffees. Wisconsin cheeses and my Green Bay Packers shirt. Arizona heat, the Milky Way and billions of stars above the Grand Canyon, one of the treasured “dark skies” in the country. The Pacific Coast Highway, California mornings, perfect Utah nights, Rocky Mountain Colorado, my favorite pungent Nevada sage, and lakes. Chicago traffic, etc. Miles and miles and miles. Train whistles and church bells. America.
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
“Soul Kitchen” by The Doors
We listened to the Poldark and Harry Potter soundtracks as we drove through northern California into Nevada, the strings swelling as we passed the heavenly beauty of Lake Tahoe. We held up our hands to shield our eyes from the sun reflecting off the bright white salt flats in Utah, listened to Band of Horses sing “The Great Salt Lake” as we passed it. We drove from Malibu at night, Los Angeles shimmering before us as we listened to “Malibu” by Hole and “West Coast” by Lana Del Rey. We bought lobster bisque. Chilled champagnes in little colorful, flowery cans. We saw the tallest trees in the world, got our hands sticky with their spicy-smelling sap. We found a beaded prayer necklace under rainy skies in the Badlands. We went west, young men and women. We also went north and skipped rocks into Lake Michigan in the morning fog. We drove and drove, watched the clouds, happy to be traveling and also missing the South. But surprisingly, I felt safer than I thought I would’ve. That’s my privilege and blessing. Like the title of John A. Williams’s book about traveling across America, This Is My Country Too, even if and when someone tries to make me feel like it’s not. My Been app tells me I’ve been to sixty-eight percent of the states in this country, that there is much I have seen, so much I have not. I tell my children to remember the things they saw and heard and felt. I tell them to write them down because age and nostalgia have their way of tinting things, of unblurring. I tell them I found America in people whose political views I disagree with and the ones I agree with, too. I found it in the darkness of our complicated history, the racism, the blood, the slavery, the cities and rivers named after slaughtered Native Americans. I found it in places with names like Wounded Knee and Badlands. I found it in the glory and light of this country, too, the majesty and spacious skies, our resilience. This is our history whether we like it or not. All of it. We are free? We are free. I tell my children, no I don’t have all the answers but, yes, I found America. And yes, I promise I will keep looking.
“Long Way Home” by Tom Waits
Photographs provided courtesy of author.