March 4, 2012
In Valencia, the air is sweet from groves of orange circles on green blurs as I drive the curves of one California highway. — In Arkansas, gnarly balls of thicket tumble across faded gray concrete highways, while cows stand in dark dirt, munching on feed and cud. — In New Mexico, distant mountain ranges conjure country pride through the belting of "PURRRRPLE MOUNTAINS MAJESTY" out open windows. — Primary color gas pumps in Oklahoma; the way my pulse pounds in Santa Fe from the high altitude; my tall leather boots in a vegan restaurant in Santa Barbara. — We climb copper boulders at a rest stop in Arizona and I photograph Scott’s silhouette, capturing his rolled shirt sleeves, angular chin, reflective glasses and the digits of his long fingers. — In Crossville, Tennessee, the battery light on the dashboard shines and southern hospitality saves us. On this Sunday morning where rain is turning into snow, a mechanic drives to his shop, replaces our alternator and charges us just $55. — In Oklahoma City, we find a restaurant oasis where we are served by an eager ginger-haired waiter. — Two hours east of Amarillo, 60 mile-an-hour winds push the driver’s side window to sink slightly, causing an irritating whistle. Scott cranks the manual lever again and again, creating brief moments of quiet. However, the cranky cranking eventually causes cracking and the disappearance of the window into the door. Cold gusts roar in. We pull off the highway. It’s nearly 4PM on Presidents' Day and all the auto shops who answer our calls can’t help until the next morning. So we bundle up and I get into the driver’s seat, pull back onto the highway and grip the wheel with gloved hands.
In Oakland, we meet Scott’s brother and wife, the new owners of this car we’ve been driving for 3,600 miles. We meet at their city’s farmers' market where a middle aged busker sings Jamaican songs and beneath tents are piles of citrus, herbs, and strawberries. In San Francisco, they buy us burritos and beer and we sit in a park on a pink and orange sheet talking and eating and drinking. A classy dealer in a straw hat carries brass pots of chocolate marijuana truffles, offering to everyone on the hill. The park is packed. Frisbee fly. A tightrope made of yellow car straps clasps around two trees and bend at the weight of a young shirtless man’s bare feet. Someone’s bottle cap pops and lands at the center of our sheet. When we look back, we receive jolly waves and apologies. A baby in pink overalls waddles by alone before flopping her diapered bottom beside two lady lovers. After a brief chat, the baby stands and begins retracing her steps when three drunk girls bend low to ask for her momma. The baby walks on toward her mother who stands with a wide smile to the right of us. When the girls see her, they laugh. They thought the baby was alone! They say, before collapsing back to their blankets.
"You might want to stay in your lane." Scott says before "Break lights. Breaaaaak lights!"
Scott and I perform a firm hand shake at every state line. We pass cargo trains, eighteen wheeler trucks and trailers towing trailers. We see black bulls, brown horses and hundreds of billboards for burgers . — At a rest stop in Shenandoah National Park, I take a picture of Scott and he takes a picture of me. In his picture, I am laughing because I am farting and the thunder of my toot echos through the valley below. — The car shop in Amarillo, where we get the window wedged shut, is a dealership and while we wait, we talk with the waiting room attendant, a sweet old woman with big shiny jewelry and a southern drawl. A widow of a "real cowboy", she used to go to the rodeos, sip whiskey sours and watch her man down in the ring. — We listen to a book on tape. We listen to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline in Nashville. We listen to the wind and we hardly talk or think about the future.
The night before our road trip’s departure, my family gathers for Mom’s birthday. My little sister, who is amidst a graduate school course about race and equality, speaks of her shock. She’s learning about the harsh truths of current racial inequality in America. I tell her that I just watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech on my computer that afternoon. I had been watching one lecture and it inspired me to look for more inspiration. I wasn’t planning to watch the entire speech, but I couldn’t help myself. When King begins, his eyes carefully follow his written word and his nervous tongue trips a little, echoing through the huddled microphones at his mouth. Soon he grows confident at the podium, referring less to the pages at his fingertips as he rallies listeners for his dreams to be realized. The camera goes to the gray statue of our 16th president, good ol’ Ab Lincoln, stoically sitting as a massive reminder of his abolition of slavery one hundred years before. Where will America be in 2063? I wonder. Will we all ever be "free at last"?
What if Scott and I were black? What if we were lesbians or gay men? What if we were of Mexican, Iranian or Kenyan descent? Would we have taken this trip from our liberal city in the Northeast, down through the southern states and up through California? What would have happened when Scott walked into that gas station where a group of middle aged white men sat drinking coffee and telling jokes, one he heard that started with "those black boys"? We have friendly faces, kind smiles and innocent eyes, but is our peach colored skin all that strangers see?
In Oakland, we attend Scott’s brother, Jonathan’s planetarium show. We sit in the front row on reclined cushioned chairs and learn how scientifically miraculous our planet is. At the end of the half hour presentation, curious children raise their little hands and inadvertently trick Jonathan into articulating the speed of light by way of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A little while later, he sets up a telescope and points it to our cratered gray moon.
We are so small, aren’t we? An idea which can be very hard to grasp. It’s like high school where it’s nearly impossible to look past one’s teenage ecosystem of naivety, rumors and spiking hormones to see empty highways, fog ringed mountain ranges and strangers. And yet, even after graduating from crowded cafeterias and American History classes, it seems we still struggle to see past our skin pigment to understand really how alike we all are. We are all souls stuffed into bodies made of livers, lungs, joints and hearts. We all walk this planet in search of acceptance, love and survival. We are all born of mothers; begin as babbling babies and waddle around as defenseless children. We all suffer heart ache and growing pains. And we all must choose between fear and love; dying and growing; and the present and the past.
On our spectacular, exhausted Earth, I only have one chance with this body and these people. So I choose love and growth and the present.