When Sage and I finally changed directions–heading east from Moab, Utah–we started to sense the beginning of the end. From there on, every mile brought us closer to our origin, Maryland. We still had nearly 2,000 miles to travel across the Midwest, but the knowledge of the trip’s transience was always in back of our minds. What had we learned so far? What was still left to experience? Why had we gone on this roadtrip at all?
Boulder: Primal Roots
Sage felt like she’d gone back in time when she reunited with her oldest friend, Molly, a superhuman hiker and keen philosopher. She took us on a couple “beginner” hikes, some 5,000 ft above Boulder, where it was already winter.
Back down in Boulder, it was still fall.
Molly gave us a tour of the outdoor shop/museum where she sells equipment to protect other crazy adventurers from themselves. Of course, what they do with that equipment is still crazy. Sage’s favorite object was the front toe of Malcolm Daly, self-described “entrepreneur, amputee, chef, visionary.”
At the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur fossils, I analyzed the dilemma of reining in my insatiable appetite, while trying to recover from losing 10 pounds on this trip!
“This cretaceous fish died while eating its last meal. The fish tried to swallow a squid so large that only half of it fit in the fish’s mouth.”
I guess my mom has a point when she cautions, “That’s two bites, not one”…
Sage reinforced this message by telling me a story about what happens to self-absorbed, ravenous meat-eaters using dinosaur tracks…
And Sage achieved a life goal trying on her own tail!
We spent the day before Halloween wandering around downtown Boulder (even running into this most final of Last Suppers.) Since we couldn’t miss a minute of Halloween, we drove to Denver for an extravagant, interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show which started at midnight.
We’d now been to both the self-proclaimed “Athens of the South” (Nashville) and “Athens of the West” (Boulder).
Since Sage requires all Halloween costumes educate “non-believers” in Halloween values, we decided to use these black onesies from our host in Telluride to morph into a black widow couple engaging in “sexual cannibalism.”
Our responses were a little out of place in this family-oriented exhibit, but we felt they were appropriate for Halloween.
We spent Halloween day at a horror convention in Denver, where we learned about the art of mask-making, listened to a lecture on the history of comic books, watched upcoming short films, made new friends, and even competed in a costume contest!
I think my face says everything about how we felt towards this new friend. I like to think he was smiling on the inside.
We capped off Halloween attending a midnight-showing of The Wizard of Oz set to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” album in University of Colorado Boulder’s planetarium. But after 2 full days of non-stop Sage-Halloween, I fell asleep in 10 minutes.
Nebraska and Iowa: The Endless Midwest
Even for a Texan, the journey across Nebraska and Iowa was longer than I expected! We stretched our legs at the Fort Cody Trading Post, an appropriately commercial shrine to showman Buffalo Bill.
This fellow just would not play fair!
The fact that I left the store with neither this hat nor toilet paper is a testament to my willpower.
Maybe Bill stopped at this station in Gothenburg, NE when working for the Pony Express, which “reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about 10 days.” While impressed, we’re glad we had cell phones during our trip west.
There weren’t a lot of places to stop (we read long passages from Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), but we did find this handy combined gas station/Indian restaurant, serving probably the best garlic naan and coconut chicken for hundreds of miles around.
This was the closest we ever came to hitting an animal.
We took a daytrip to visit Sage’s family’s hometown of Omaha, where we stopped by her great-grandmother’s old house.
According to family photos, Sage’s mom got a lot of grandparent-given baths here in 1959. Since most of her family had long left for Chicago, Sage found it strange visiting a city with so much family history to which she had no connection.
“We crossed only one mud puddle today. It was six miles long.”—pioneer’s journal from Omaha’s Mormon Visitor Center
After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson was “asked how long it would take to settle so much land,” and he “speculated two thousand years.” Nevertheless, by 1869, hundreds of thousands of pioneers from “Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee” had ventured into this wilderness via wagon (“Pioneer Courage” Memorial).
The trek was far from easy. Of the 4,000 Mormons who made the journey to north Omaha in 1846, more than 600 died from harsh climate, limited food, and disease.
“They were the best pioneers in history.” – the totally unbiased Mormon Visitor Center
While our roadtrip wasn’t nearly as long, dangerous, or influential, we like to see ourselves as heirs to this American pioneering tradition.
“Lila was glad to be seeing the country again, the fields looking so green in the evening light… It all just went on and on, the United States of America. It was so easy to forget that most of the world was cornfields.” – Marilynne Robinson in Lila
We briefly toured the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest MFA creative writing program in the country, where *Robinson* herself teaches. (I’d give my left hand–and I’m left-handed!–to attend her weekly seminar on the Bible.) It was one of our trip’s most useful stops, as I began weighing the pros and cons of applying to MFA programs.
Why does America have so many cornfields? According to Jonathan Foley–director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota–we use roughly 40% of U.S. corn for ethanol and 36% feeds cattle, pigs, and chickens. Much of the rest is exported as food, and the tiny fraction directly fed to Americans mostly becomes high-fructose corn syrup.
“For all our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners…. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart.” – John Steinbeck
In our ever-connected, urbanized, homogenized American culture, Steinbeck is largely correct, and we could have eaten at Mcdonald’s, stayed at Holiday Inn, and talked to friends back home throughout the entire trip. Nevertheless, on our roadtrip, we most enjoyed searching for and finding America’s diversity.
For example, driving through the Midwest, like the South, Southwest, and West, felt like entering a different world. We moved from landscapes characterized by canyons and cacti; into vast sandstone plateaus and vaulting, jagged mountains; before abruptly hitting the Midwest: hundreds and hundreds of miles of flatness, golden cornfields, enormous blue skies, hay bales, and the occasional barn and herd of cows.
It’s all connected though. In the Iowa State Historical Museum’s film exhibit, we learned that our hero John Wayne spent his first 7 years in Iowa!
“As the center of the Midwest, Iowa is an excellent setting for films exploring issues in American culture. Themes of farm life, small towns, hypocrisy, work, beauty, and loyalty are all discussed in popular films about Iowa.” — Iowa State Museum
We missed most debates during our trip (thanks national media for making it nearly impossible for rootless, unemployed, computer-dependent, young citizens to inform themselves). However, we tried getting in the election spirit in the museum’s room on Iowa’s importance to American presidential politics (Disclaimer: I do not necessarily support the candidate whose face I’m holding…)
We made an unexpected stop at Herbert Hoover’s Presidential Library, Museum, and gravesite, where we learned about Hoover’s many forgotten virtues. While now familiar with the museum’s selective, celebratory spirit, Sage found this optimistic filter particularly appropriate for Hoover.
“Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure. In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.” Hoover’s Inaugural address, March 4, 1929. The crash began Oct. 24th.
Chicago: Our Kind of Town
Chicago, the week-long highlight of our Midwest trip, is where Sage spent her most formative years (the most “formative” aspect being the museums). As she relived memories in this towering metropolis, she gave me a crash course in all the art, architecture, and history the city offers.
I have roots here too. My mom’s side of the family is from Lake Forest, north of the city, and this 1897 elevated “L” stop is even named after John Quincy Adams–my relative and a well-known chess enthusiast! (Note the pawn above the stairway entrance.)
We think Chicago is so exemplary, not just from family bias, but also because it grew from its failures and misfortunes.
The most obvious example is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed 2,000 acres, killed 300, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed $200 million of property. But rather than fade into history, the city was reborn through tireless, innovative citizens, brilliant architects, and lots of money. From ashes rose a modern city that would impact the world.
“Partially to celebrate its remarkable recovery from the fire,” Chicagoans staged the World’s Columbian Exposition 22 years later [Chicago History Museum (CHM)].
Because of its central location and transportation system, “Chicago became the nation’s largest meat producer during the Civil War.” Its enormous wealth ($46 million) helped Chicago beat bids by New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis to host the 1893 “Columbian Exposition.” After winning, Chicago transformed itself into a “White City” filled with monumental neoclassical architecture, lagoons, basins, and canals.
Among various testimonies to American progress, the Expo boasted many “firsts” including:
- A movie theater
- An early dishwasher, fluorescent light bulb, and zipper
- Juicy fruit, Cream of Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
- The first U.S. coin to honor a woman.
Chicago continued rebuilding through the 1900s, leading the “City Beautiful” movement with its innovative, recreation-oriented urban planning and giving birth to the world’s first and famous skyscrapers. The “Willis” Tower, erected in 1973 and originally named the Sears Tower, hits 1,730 ft and was the tallest building in the world for 25 years.
“As Chicago rebuilt after the Great Fire, increased demand for downtown office space spurred architects to design taller buildings to accommodate more people. Facing complex challenges and working under tight budgets that forced creativity, architects….developed a series of innovations that made high-rise construction possible. After WWII, a new group of Chicago architects further advanced high-rise architecture around the world.” – CHM sign.
Marina City, completed in 1964, was the first U.S. building constructed with tower cranes and the first U.S. urban post-war high-rise residential complex. It’s widely credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities.
I savored my hours in the Art Institute of Chicago–a neoclassical building dating back to the 1893 Columbian Expo. Unlike Sage, who’d been visiting since age 5, I’d only ever seen this famous Seurat as a print above my piano teacher’s piano. After seven years of weekly gazing, I finally got to see the real thing.
Sage’s love of museums stems from the children’s programs her grandmother took her to here. She found new meaning in her old favorite–the Thorne miniature rooms–having recently researched them in her museum history course at Brown.
This Magritte reminded us of the Menil Collection in Houston, where Sage introduced me to his work. Now he’s one of my favorite surrealist artists!
Sometimes we all feel a little blue.
Sage spent the day communing with her favorite god at a special exhibition on Dionysus through history.
After visiting the Southwest, I enjoyed seeing its stark landscape and rugged people transformed into “American” art.
We encountered this Native American rider and horse throughout our travels, and found it a fascinating commentary on the even more ubiquitous, upright, Texas cowboy version (“Bronco Buster,” mentioned in our Texas post). We found it especially appropriate in Chicago, where at the 1893 World’s Fair, Turner announced his thesis that the frontier had formed American democracy, but was coming to a close.
But Chicago doesn’t just store art in buildings: it puts it out on the street.
The Palmer House was the first “fireproof” hotel, built after the original all-wood building burned down 13 days after it was completed in the Great Chicago Fire. The current hotel greeted us with these Tiffany brass “peacock” elevator doors, and it only got better.
Bertha Palmer, wife of millionaire hotelier Potter Palmer, invented the brownie here in 1893 when she “wanted a new dessert to serve at the World’s Fair that was smaller than a cake, but still had cake-like qualities.” You’re my hero, Bertha!
Under its skyscrapers, Millennial Park, completed in 2004, is one of the newest additions to Chicago’s public art culture.
While there, we met up with Katrina, Sage’s friend and one of our trip’s most outgoing and joyful hosts. This was the least edible “Bean” I’ve ever come across, but my disappointment couldn’t last long with Katrina’s spirit brightening our surroundings.
Chicago has even mastered the art of playgrounds.
Of course, Chicago’s music scene is another testament to the creativity the city inspires and cultivates. Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it moved during the Great Migration and grew up in 1920s, Prohibition-era Chicago.
We experienced this legacy at the Green Mill–which still contains Al Capone’s favorite booth:
“…it afforded clear views of both the front and back entrances…It is rumored that there is still an access hatch to the tunnels located directly behind the long end of the bar that leads underneath the street…this is how Capone was able to elude the authorities when he visited The Green Mill.” – wikipedia
Encountering this violin bar, we learned that music and alcohol are connected even in Chicago’s Symphony Center.
Chicago also has an impressive contemporary theater scene, and Sage’s grandmother got us ushering gigs at “Million Dollar Quartet,” which has been running there for 8 years! I was happy to hand out programs since it meant getting to relive our trip’s earlier encounters with musical heroes Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and piano wizard Jerry Lee Lewis.
Chicago is also an intellectual center, and as part of the famous Chicago Humanities Festival, we heard author Salman Rushdie speak about the importance of free speech:
“You need to allow ideas to be expressed so you can knock them down.”
“If you’re a bad writer, that’s not your fault–it’s just your problem. But if you’re a self-censoring writer, that is your fault.”
With its enormous wealth, Chicago also turned selling and shopping into artforms. Back in the late 19th century, Marshall Field & Co. (now Macy’s) pioneered modern department store retail by offering “the unheard of privilege of returning merchandise,” “European luxury goods,” as well as the “first dining-room restaurant, bridal registry, and clearance basement” (CHM).
For men struggling with Christmas present ideas, Marshall Field & Co. offers this motto: “Give the lady what she wants.”
Transforming shopping into an experience itself was so important, the store cut out all this potential selling space to create the right high-end atmosphere.
The store windows even provide elaborate art displays to entice attention. The store did get our attention, but not our money.
American Girl dolls inspired much of Sage’s current love for American History. Although she was disappointed that her colonial doll, Felicity, has been discontinued, she loved teaching me how American Girl dolls–while outrageously expensive–can still offer an alternative, inspirational, and educational doll experience.
However, we were disappointed with the store’s focus on contemporary dolls–especially this “Girl of the Year” infuriatingly named “Saige.” According to real Sage, she has “no educational value. She just steals money.”
Sage gave her “Best Bathroom” award to this pink dreamland (each stall has a dollholder!).
We both got a glimpse of heaven in the next door, gloriously colorful Lego Store. Sage enjoyed watching me attract attention when an older woman asked if she could take my picture to “inspire her grandson.”
My twin brother and I spent years building heroic, aerodynamic, speeding Lego ships, so when I saw all these miscellaneous pieces longing to be joined, I couldn’t help reverting to childhood.
But Chicago’s cultural wealth has never been equally available–or necessarily of interest–to Chicago’s diverse population.
“By 1900, Chicago had become a city of immigrants. More than 75% of the population was either foreign born or native born with foreign parentage.”–CHM
“Rife with social and industrial problems, life in the city became increasingly fractured and difficult, particularly for the poor. Progressive reformers strove to improve conditions and provide all Chicagoans with access to culture, quality education and housing, and environmental and legal reforms. Progressive ideas originating in Chicago influenced and inspired reformers across the country.” – CHM label.
One notable Progressive institution attempting to address this inequality was Jane Addams’ Hull House, which “became a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings, and a safe haven where immigrants living in the neighborhood could find companionship and the assistance they needed to cope with life in a modern industrial city” (Hull-House label).
Sage considers Jane Addams, whom the FBI labeled “America’s most dangerous woman,” a role model–although not in terms of her long-sleeved dress. Jane Addams recounted how her puffy sleeves prompted Leo Tolstoy to admonish: “‘there was enough stuff on one arm to make a frock for a little girl,’ and asked [her] directly if [she] did not find ‘such a dress a barrier to the people?’” — Addams
“The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach and how we live.” – Jane Addams
We educated ourselves, like the house’s former occupants, by reading from the museum’s historical library. I spent some time studying up on (outdated) feminism, communism, and liberal thought in Women and the Economy so I could beat Sage in our next debate.
At the Chicago History Museum, we learned about various crises in Chicago’s history, and how they’re often most harmful to people in these marginalized groups.
For example, this photo shows a victim from “The Eastland Disaster,” America’s worst maritime accident, which took 800 lives–most from west side, immigrant neighborhoods.
We also learned how these crises are often blamed on individual victims from these same marginalized groups, rather than larger, dangerous social conditions.
For example, while the Great Chicago Fire was largely caused by a “hastily built, densely packed” wooden city filled with lumber companies, poor construction, lack of safety precautions, and a summer drought, it was blamed on Mrs. O’Leary and her cow:
“Mrs. O’Leary [a poor Irish immigrant] became a scapegoat for the disaster, in large part because of her social and economic status. The blame lingered for more than a century. Finally, in 1997, the city of Chicago adopted a formal resolution absolving Catherine O’Leary–and her cow–of any guilt related to the fire.” [CHM label]
This “blaming the victim” happened again and again throughout Chicago’s history. During the Haymarket affair, the media targeted violent anarchists rather than the dangerous industrial working conditions they protested. Politicians blamed black participants for the 1919 Race Riots, rather than the “labor tensions between the races and overcrowding in the Black Belt” the Chicago Commission on Race Relations identified 3 years later. Similarly, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Mayor Dailey claimed demonstrators came to “assault, harass, and taunt the police” and most polled citizens supported police violence against them, while the President’s Commission on violence blamed a “police riot.”
In Sage’s opinion, blaming victims led to unjust persecution and a failure to fix the true causes behind these crises.
In contrast, inspired by the 1904 Union Stock Yard strike, Upton Sinclair went undercover and then wrote The Jungle to expose the meat industry’s “unsanitary practices, poor working conditions, and political corruption.” By revealing the larger causes behind the strike, his book revolutionized meatpacking and sped up passing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act [CHM].
As an aspiring writer, it’s encouraging to remember how one good book can lead to real change in people’s thoughts and lives.
“The most recent wave of immigrants has made Chicago and its suburbs one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world. Their varied traditions and customs have enriched the city, making it a complex crossroads of global proportions.” CHM label
We got to experience the cultural contributions of Chicago’s immigrant community while relishing enormous meatball subs in Little Italy:
“It’s a slice of life, not a fine-dining experience.” — Zagat rating for “Fontano’s Subs”
We actually met a modern social justice hero when Sage’s friend, Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt, gave us a tour of the historic Tribune building.
We were even more convinced Gregory is actually Superman when he took us to the roof where the reporters supposedly “eat lunch.”
A proud heir to the Tribune tradition, Gregory spends every day fighting for Truth and Justice through rigorous and courageous reporting.
“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” — John 8:32 (KJV)
“A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.” — George Sutherland
That was also the ONLY night we spent apart the entire trip. I expected to be totally and completely lost without Sage’s strength and wisdom guiding my every thought and step, but luckily I had a nice quiet evening catching up with my old friend, Mary, who I’ve known since age 11.
Meanwhile, Sage and Gregory were watching this:
Our favorite part of Chicago was spending hours biking down the Lake Shore–an immensity created to “counteract the negative effects of urban life” (CHM). Due to this prescience, Chicago now has the best of all worlds: nature, culture, history, and even transportation.
If only it didn’t have winter.
Wilmette: The Segregated Suburb
“I hold no preference among flowers so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.” Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire
Of course, not everyone appreciates Chicago’s diversity, and “white-flight” has led to the growth of many expensive, racially homogeneous suburbs.
Sage lived in one of these suburbs–Wilmette–during elementary school.
After months of exhausting travel, we took a break to visit Wilmette’s Gilson Park Beach, but while we enjoyed the beach, an ever-vigilant neighbor called the police on our “suspicious” dented, granola-and-blanket-filled blue Honda.
Luckily, Walker Bros. famous Dutch apple pancake made it easy to forget economic prejudice.
Homer’s ice cream helped too.
We also visited Wilmette’s Baha’i temple–the only Baha’i house of worship in the United States, and the oldest surviving one in the world! The ribs meeting at the top of the dome symbolize “the hands of people of all religions together in prayer” towards one God.
“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship” — Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith
The Baha’i faith is a fascinating attempt to harmonize all major world religions into one worldview by considering each a successive stage in the progressive revelation of God. This temple’s architecture speaks to that desire, incorporating the Star of David (Judaism), the cross (Christianity), the crescent moon with five-pointed star (Islam), and the hooked cross (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.).
Many tenets of the Baha’i faith felt well-intentioned and inclusive: reconciling major religions, appreciating humanity’s diversity, eliminating prejudice, universalizing education, racial and gender equality, and harmonizing both science and religion in the search for truth. However, to me, it also seemed a little empty, as if depth was lost in the theological acrobatics required to consolidate such different religions.
“For the Baha’i faith, one of its biggest problems is its pluralism. That is, how can one reconcile such divergent religions without leaving them theologically gutted? It is easy to argue that the world’s religions have commonalities in their ethical teachings and have some concept of ultimate reality. But it is another beast entirely to try to argue unity in their fundamental teachings about what the ultimate reality is and about how those ethics are grounded.” – Got Questions Ministries
Toledo: The Gales of November
After spending the day where Sage grew up, we headed to my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Kevin’s house.
I loved hearing them tell old stories about my late dad and grandfather.
One my grandfather loved to tell was how he met my grandmother, the woman in the photo’s right side. During WWII, he was a medic and she was a nurse, and he waltzed up to her and said: “If you want to lose some lipstick, you know where to find me,” to which she replied: “Go to hell.” But he must have redeemed himself because they went on to have 5 kids (this picture shows their three oldest, including my dad at the bottom).
Toledo in November was a bit depressing.
But at The National Museum of the Great Lakes, we learned there’s a long history to Toledo’s depressing, stormy Novembers–and the shipwrecks they cause. The lakes have taken at least 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they called ‘gitche gumee ‘/ The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead / When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more / Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty / That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed / When the gales of November came early
“Dear Wife and Children: We have been out in storm forty hours. Goodbye dear ones, I might see you in Heaven…Chris K.” – message in bottle found 1913, 11 days after the Plymouth disappeared
One of Toledo’s more famous residents might have been Rosie the Riveter, supposedly based on a Toledo shipyard employee.
However, Rosie might not actually have been that important to the war effort. Apparently, riveting was slow, labor intensive, and made boats heavy. Welding was faster, easier, and lighter, and during WWII, allowed U.S. shipyards to build 7,200 Liberty Ships, each with 600,000 ft of welded joints.
So, sorry Toledo: we think the song should be called “Wendy the Welder.”
While the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center–the first presidential library/museum in the country–was closed for Veteran’s Day, we did visit the 1877-81 president’s tomb.
Sage befriended this majestic tree, which has been living since at least the American Revolution!
Cleveland: Memory and Museums
At the Cleveland Museum of Art–one of the most innovative, interactive museums we’d seen- Sage and I happily spent our time absorbed in screens.
The touchscreens asked big questions like “Why Do We Paint?,” and then moved on to seemingly unrelated but extremely fun interactive activities. Here, we remixed Picasso’s “Still Life With Biscuits.”
Given our Pollock-inspired masterpiece, Sage and I are giving up music and writing to follow our true artistic calling: playing with museum touchscreens.
In contrast with the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit on Dionysus/Bacchus throughout history, the Cleveland Museum offered a far more interesting virtual journey into the varied lives of the Bacchus, Perseus, and Adam and Eve myths, unrestricted by collection or medium. With this representation of Adam and Eve, we think Legos might have finally beat Michelangelo.
Eventually, we headed up to the American collection to reminisce on the beautiful western landscapes we’d left behind.
We particularly connected with “Twilight In the Wilderness” by Frederic Edwin Church, showing an eagle fixedly gazing over the last moment of peace before a storm–painted just before the Civil War. Likewise, throughout our trip, our awareness of the approaching end made every moment seem increasingly precious and beautiful.
I felt the twilight of our trip with acute sorrow, but Thomas Cole’s 1838 “View of Schroon Mountain” optimistically depicts the beginnings of rebirth after a destructive storm, which reassured me this country’s vistas and cultures–not to mention life itself–would provide plenty of future adventures and joys.
“Championing the unspoiled American wilderness, Cole declared, “We are still in Eden…” —CMA label
We saw a different representation of America in George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey’s,” part of the Ashcan movement’s rejection of romantic western landscapes for grittier, realistic representations of urban life. Viewing the powerful, boxers from down in the audience reminded Sage of watching wrestling in Chicago:
“Stag at Sharkey’s embodies the grittiness, violence, and masculinity of the new city. In 1909, when Bellows completed this painting, prizefighting was illegal in New York. Athletic clubs such as Sharkey’s were the equivalent of Prohibition’s speakeasies — illegal, but they did a booming business. In Bellows’s boxing match, the spectators are vulgar; their expressions indicate that they are at least as violent as the match they are watching. But the boxers themselves are reminiscent of stags in nature, still graceful while locked in combat.” — PBS’s sister Wendy Beckett
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum also brought back memories, pulling the vibrant threads of oldtime, country, blues, soul, gospel, jazz, and rockabilly from Bristol, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Austin, and Chicago together into the story of Rock and Roll.
“A man told me in a Montana saloon, ‘the reason I like Jimmie Rodgers is everything he sings is true’–the highest praise a folk singer could ever have.” — Pete Seeger
“Rock and Roll found an honesty, a passion, and a sense of reality lacking in pop music.”–RnR Museum
By this point, we knew this musical “honesty,” “passion,” and “reality” well (since basically every genre claims it as a defining characteristic). From hearing the strains of Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” pouring from an unlit Studio B’s speakers in Nashville, to watching Jerry Lee Lewis rowdily bang and shake his way up and down the piano in Memphis’ Sun Studios during Million Dollar Quartet, rock and roll had long been essential to our roadtrip playlist.
Graham Nash of “Crosby, Stills & Nash” taught both of us about his approach to songwriting:
“Watch now, watch, keep watching, see! see!”
Bruce Springsteen offered this advice:
“A rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and your audience looks up at you and see themselves–as long as these reflections are human, realistic…”
We didn’t leave with a definitive sense of Rock and Roll, nor can we say we have a comprehensive understanding of any music we encountered on our trip. Nevertheless, this museum, like our trip as a whole, gave us renewed appreciation for familiar sounds–and even introduced us to new ones. We can’t imagine Blue Ridge Parkway without hearing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” New Orleans without Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” west Texas deserts without Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” or snow-capped Colorado mountains without John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”
Pennsylvania and Maryland: Back to Where We Began
Reluctant to end, we made as many stops as we could on our 385-mile drive back to Maryland.
We were also constantly stopped by overpriced tolls.
Though warned we might get shot for trespassing, we stopped in Pennsylvania’s abandoned “Storyland”–a fairy tale park closed in the 1980s–just to have one last excursion.
We even stopped to look in random store displays. We really didn’t want to get back home.
Conclusion: Kings of the Road
[As usual, I’m giving Sage the last word]
Throughout our trip, Ben and I were constantly asked, “What was your favorite place?”
Surprisingly to us, our answer’s been no place, but rather, driving between places. Our favorite place has been the endless American road–the moments researching that strange abandoned building, arguing over a historic “hero’s” legacy, or singing like a cowboy about Texas.
Roadtrippers often cite Steinbeck’s famous claim that Americans are instinctively unsatisfied with where they are. At heart, all Americans are travelers–longing to go “there” without even knowing the “here” they long to leave.
“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.” – John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley
While we certainly felt this longing to see other parts of our country, the best parts of our trip weren’t about escaping past and future places–just as the trip as a whole, despite our tagline “avoiding adulthood”–wasn’t really about running from our pasts or evading the future.
Rather, being on the road on a roadtrip created the perfect interspace: above rather than between our “real” lives. Isolated in my dented old car and flying 85 mph through the desert, Ben and I could reflect on the paths we’d already taken and contemplate the many still open to us.
After 9,273 miles, the road led us right back to where we started, but we returned home knowing more about our country, ourselves, and each other.
“This was different from any trip I’d ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I’d driven, in all that wonder, there wasn’t a moment when I felt I didn’t belong; not a day when I didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty…never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen.” – Paul Theroux
We’re sad the trip’s over, but while we can’t yet see exactly how, we know this trip will help us find our next adventures.
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life” – Sal, from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road
In one way, we’re also glad the trip’s over. Life on the road is liberating, but Ben and I are both happy slaves to writing and music. We loved going out and listening to our world, but we also want to make music of our own. Hopefully, much of what we create will come from reflecting on this roadtrip itself.
Thank you to Mom (Terra) and Dad (Jim) for inspiring and supporting this trip.
Thank you to Mom (Martha) for checking in every day.
Thank you to all friends, family, and strangers who gave us housing, food, and conversation. This trip was as much about and because of you as the places we went. Special shoutouts to Hannah, Nancy, Amy, Stephen, Margot, Cindy, Sharon, Charles, Gayle, Graham, Lorianne, Wes, Gail, Baerbel, Charlotta, Dan, Molly, JJ, Charlotte, Gregory, Katrina, Mary, Nancy, Kevin, Helene, and Allen.
Thanks to all the friends, family, and strangers who supported this plan and helped us create it! (Too many to mention, but you know who you are!)
Finally, thanks to everyone following this blog. We never felt alone this entire trip because we always felt your support. And if you liked riding along in spirit, we encourage you to take your own roadtrip, and we’ll be right behind you the entire way!
“Hike your own hike.” – Molly and JJ
There’s so much we didn’t have room to talk about here, so if you want to know more about something, ask!!