A Foreigner in My Own Land
One of the first things I began to notice about myself as a foreigner living in Brazil, was that I really didn’t know my country. My own country, the United States of America, the country that I lived in for 38 years, was born in, and the one I carried with me as an identity marker whenever and wherever I traveled outside of it. Since moving to South America, to the megalopolis of São Paulo Brazil, with my wife a few years ago, I would meet people here and the conversation would often turn to the USA. People here know the US, many of them have been there, and many are curious about many different parts of the country. And they were often places that I had not been to. Places like New York City, Miami, or a company headquarters in Ohio, and on and on. I realized very quickly that not only was I unfamiliar with most of these places, but that outside of my home state of California, and some nearby southwest neighbors, I couldn’t say that I really knew the USA. I couldn’t say what it was like to eat in a southern diner in the state of Louisiana, or how the tropical air felt in Miami. I couldn’t describe the vast prairies of the Midwest, nor the coasts or cultures of the Northeast. Moreover, this sort of identity problem that I was beginning to recognize was not squaring up with the view of myself as a cultured traveler. I was, I thought, a guy from Los Angeles, married to a Chilean, now living in São Paulo Brazil after honeymooning in Europe. I was I believed, well traveled, well cultured, and well prepared to live in Brazil. But, when I was having conversations with these actually well traveled Brazilians, I would often have to find good reasons to explain to them, just why I had never been to New York, or other parts of my country, and I used the same line I had become accustomed to using even back in the US, but now it was starting to sound a bit, unadventurous, unpatriotic, and I was beginning to sound not like a well traveled guy, but more like a sheltered hermit, scared of new tings and new places. I told them like I always had; That I was from California which is like, a really big state, and I grew up surfing, not interested in anywhere in the world that didn’t have a coast with surfable waves. Oh, and I had in fact been to many parts of California and around the West. Of course, I had always wanted to see other places, but I just never got to it. And as I would say this, I started to realize that even if I wanted to go out and see these other states and cities, I couldn’t, because I wasn’t there anymore. I suddenly had this strong urge to take a cross-country road trip. I wished out loud that I had lived in other states, that I had taken more chances, moved around, met people from other places. But, now that I didn’t live there, it was also a lot more difficult to just plan a trip and start driving across the lower 48. I started to think about how much I had missed, how many opportunities that I could have had to get to encounter different people, the real diversity of the stars and stripes, the radical topography that splits cultures and climate zones, the food, the accents. I needed to discover some of this, soon.
Then, a Whattsapp message arrived, from a friend in the states who was sending a wedding invitation to us down here. The wedding would take place on the shores of Lake Michigan, and soon after receiving this message, I looked over at my wife and I had an idea in mind. I said to her, Let’s go to this wedding; make it into a good old-fashioned American road trip. Magdalena, the passionate traveler that she is, was up for the idea right away. We decided that we would fly to New York City, spend a few days there, and then drive to Dallas, Texas with a stop over on the shores of Lake Michigan, no set itinerary, just a vague plan to SEE something else, finally. We started to think about all of the sights we would see, from upstate New York to the Midwest and down into Texas. How many states could we hit, how many regional cuisines could we taste, and how many Trump signs would we see?
In college I read the epic travelogue, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat- Moon and besides being totally riveted by his masterful storytelling, I was also taken aback by the sheer size of the country and its diversity amongst its peoples. Somewhere in the back of my brain I knew back then that I was missing out on a big chunk of what the USA was. Why that book at that time wasn’t enough to inspire me to actually do something about it, I can’t say. I remember how much I admired Heat-Moon’s approach to probing the US, how he went from the fringes inward, avoiding the big cities and well known places, sticking to the byways, the blue lines on the map. He gave us readers a window into the places found along roadside USA. In his many vivid descriptions of his meetings with people from all the corners of the country and their the daily struggles and triumphs, we got to peer into the many personal dramas and wild beauty of our diverse and still semi-wild country. I never set out on my own Homeric journey to do what Least-Moon did, but I never forgot the stories and the places he told us about, so now that I had my chance to see some things in a similar fashion, 15 after thumbing through that little book, I was ready to take a trip like this.
We arrived to JKF at the end of August 2019 as summer all over the US was winding down. We had just 3 days to do what every tourist does in the city that never sleeps: Ferry ride to Ellis Island, pizza, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and the 9/11 memorial. It took me 37 years to get to the city where my great grandmother first arrived in the US, coming with thousands of Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s, but I was just glad to now be able to say that I had been there. I had seen Manhattan, the great waters that welcomed all of those immigrants, the great bridges that span those big waters. I rode the octopus-like metro, and saw the land of Whitman. After our foray in the city we decided to take the train to Rochester so that we could relax and see the Hudson and some of the New York countryside from a moving train window and leave the driving for later. As we left Penn Station we watched the city turn into country and I marveled at the wildness of the whole scene. In many ways it was similar to Los Angles, that, in just a couple of hours once out of the city, you could find some real wildness, but in New York everything was green, even at the end of summer!
From Rochester the plan was to rent a car and take it all the way down to Dallas, but before we did that I wanted to see the George Eastman museum and walk the streets of the town that Kodak built. The museum was great for any fan of the history of photography; the house of George Eastman today houses the history as well as preserves the techniques of the medium. Today, there you could learn how to make Daguerreotypes or Wet Collodion plates. I would have loved to take a course, but they are often multi day affairs, and we had places to go and things to see. The streets of Rochester also preserve a history of photography in a way, one could argue that the town’s economy was largely dependent on the popularity of film photography, but with the advent of digital cameras Kodak saw its stock decline, and the people of Rochester saw their jobs evaporate. Today, downtown Rochester seems to personify the stories that you read about the Rust Belt cities in decay. Around, the center of the city most of the grand historic downtown buildings were either shuttered, and For Sale signs hung haphazardly in the windows all along main street. One of those places where every Uber ride is an awkward one. We took about 3 rides in Rochester, and not one of them took us to our destination without telling us about their woes, and without saddling us with a little of the baggage of our modern economy. The drivers could not help but to share tales of economic scarcity and personal hardship. We had a hard time relating to our chauffeurs, what could we really to say to them, a Chilean and a Californian on vacation touring America? Later, when I read just how many jobs were lost after Kodak and Xerox took major losses, I understood what we had seen and heard. As charming as some parts of the city were, I was relieved to move on from there. When we picked up our car at the local Enterprise the young clerk saw my California ID and said something about an uncle who lived in Santa Clarita and how he wished he were there, and not in Rochester. With our own wheels now, we got on the highway and began our journey.
In tribute to Heat-Moon and Blue Highways, we tried our best to stay on the small roads and lesser highways as we toured the shores of Lake Ontario on our way West. My wife got excited when we saw some bikes stacked up against a small farm house and laundry hanging outside of it, Amish!, she screamed. As I continued driving, she used her phone to learn as much about the Amish for the next two days as she could. I now know that the percentage of return after the infamous Rumspring is quite high. And I reckoned that with what we had just seen in Rochester and the whole back to the land movement happening in places such as Silverlake Los Angeles, maybe the Amish had it right the entire time. Of course we had to see the Niagara Falls, I told my wife that it must be one of the most famous Kodachrome images burned into my mind, and it was right along our route. As we walked along the canyon edge of the powerful Niagara River it reminded me of powerful places in the West I had known, and now we were discovering totally new places of power, together. Later, we donned the blue plastic ponchos and boarded the Maid of the Mist, allowing us to have a little thrill and get up close to the falls. It was windy, but warm, and with everybody in blue plastic, people from all over the US and the world, kids screaming, mist flying, it felt like a sort of a baptism. Later, both my wife and I agreed that the Falls of Iguazu in Brazil and Argentina are more impressive, but this was one of those places etched in my mind and now I had actually felt it, tasted the air, another spot on the map, now made real and visceral. Heading west out of the state park we drove over the Niagara River on a beautiful steel bridge and then we were dove down into the city of Buffalo with its crumbling factories, which stood out like giant rusty tombstones. Totems of a changing world, changes that I was beginning to understand, many Americans are still grasping with. I wished we could have stayed more time in Buffalo, and walked the streets of the vacant factories, but this was not our theme and as we drove on I struggled to juxtapose the Buffalo I knew in my head, from the stories of friends whose parents were from there. I thought about Buffalo Bills fans braving the frigid winters, and steel workers.
After driving quickly through the tiny Pennsylvanian coast (which I was totally unaware of), we stopped at one of its picturesque beach coves, where waves splashed against a cobblestone beach and kids played in a small park. The sun was setting and throwing the last rays over the cobblestones, driftwood was piled all over the beach, with the coarse sand under our feet we watched the sun set over one of the Great Lakes. I hadn’t seen this system of water, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, since I was eleven years old when I went to Chicago. We stayed in Erie for the night and ate dinner in a small bar on the marina with a couple of bikers and their companions.
With the light of the new day we were on the road again, cruising through Ohio on route 20, and with my national park beacon always on, we just had to stop in Mentor, which as you all know, is where you’ll find the home of President Garfield, a national park site. Stopping at historic homes means one thing however, that if you actually want to see the home, you are going to have to sign up for the tour. And this takes time. Sometimes precious time, and always when you’re trying to make miles. Especially after experiencing a rather disappointing tour through the home of Susan B Anthony in Rochester (the docent there was uninspiring, and the older DC couple who were in our group asked only irrelevant and banal questions the entire time). Therefore, I really wanted to support my National Park Service colleagues, but I was a little anxious about stopping to see the Garfield House. However, my wife loves old Victorian homes and this was a National Park site and therefore I believed that the interpreter or guide, would be of at least some standard higher than what we had seen in Rochester. So, we bought our tickets, but then had to wait for the next tour. While we waited we explored the visitor center and read about the life of this obscure US president. Garfield as we learned, had started out as a more progressive voice, but earned the presidency through a sort of reality show understanding of himself, he was said to have crazy ideas and after going almost bankrupt he found himself the leading candidate after years of corruption in the federal government, the people perhaps wanted someone knew. This was after General, then President Ulysses S grant almost ran for a third term. However, the people of the United States would never get the chance to really see what his presidency would look like. Because a disgruntled petitioner shot Garfield just 80 days into his term and he became bed ridden and incapacitated. After a painful hospice and many doctors attempting to retrieve the bullet, he eventually died a few months later.
Finally, the tour started, and this tour was much better. The park volunteer, a retired schoolteacher, knew her facts and had that spunk that makes for a god interpreter. On the official tour we learned about the lives of the family after the president died. The culminating moment being when we got to enter the official presidential library that Mrs. Garfield spearheaded and maintained in their personal home upstairs. After the tour it was well past midday and time for lunch, so we found a picnic table in the shade and ate there on the tranquil park grounds. The knowledgeable park volunteer had also told the group that the highway we were on, Route 20, is the 7th longest highway in the US, and that one can visit over a dozen national park sites along its almost cross-country length. That would be an epic trip I thought, another road trip for another day. We did have one more park site to hit that day however, and we still wanted to make it up to Michigan, so we headed south and left highway 20 as we bypassed Cleveland, and drove towards that beautiful suburban oasis known as Cuyahoga NP. It was a place that reminded me a lot of my park, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, in both places the city dweller could find areas of refuge, sit by a stream, take a quiet walk. And in both places unique US history was preserved right alongside the trees and the butterflies. After too short of a visit there we were driving north up to Michigan. Ann Arbor was the closest place to find a bed for the night so we turned in there. A big M football game was brewing and coeds were hanging on the decks of frat houses when we arrived, good thing we would be leaving early the next morning and the game wasn’t until the following day. On our way to find some food we walked along a large nature preserve on the outskirts of campus and watched fireflies take flight. It was the first time in my life that I had seen fireflies like that, and it was magical.
On the road to Holland and the shores of Lake Michigan, we saw many large billboards advertising gun shows with images of military style guns displayed. Whatever happened to hunting rifles I thought, and why no images of and pa and son walking along the river in the forest? The wedding was a lot of fun, if not a bit ironic. There were so many Californians there, next to a place like an ocean, but not. In both places the real estate increased the nearer the water, but one body of water completely froze over in the winter. I think that was the biggest difference I could find. We were able to get into the lake a few times, we had to go swimming in those huge waters. After this part of the trip, we did not have any itinerary, so when we set off south towards Texas we didn’t know where we would stop. It was Labor Day and we wanted to try to get into the lake one more time so we took a detour towards the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but all of the nice beaches were already packed, so we squeezed into a beach down by Gary Indiana. There was a huge parking lot and a small beach with a nice view of the factory up the shore, we could see Chicago in the hazy distance. Along the skinny beach there were those wild dunes where the park takes its name. The lifeguards and the rangers had to constantly tell people to stay off of the fragile dunes. I asked the lifeguards if they tested the waters recently, they told me that they do test the waters, just not recently. As we lay on the sand taking in the Labor Day sun a group of families in front of us were drinking wine and eating Subway sandwiches.
I had remembered that my old NPS supervisor was now working at Lincoln’s Home and Historic Site, and it looked like it was on our way. We put the GPS to Springfield Illinois and rode the waving rows of corn all the way to the capital. The site was closed when we arrived but you can still walk the couple of blocks there that they have recreated to give one the sense of the town in Lincoln’s era, so we did. Outside of the historic town however, it looked a lot like Rochester, black on one side of town, and white on the other, and sort of depressed all over. We stopped in a Big Lots to try and buy something for my friend and a man in cowboy boots with a big belt buckle walked in and asked the young girl at the desk, ‘You guys sell cakes here’? ‘No sir’, the girl said. ‘Really’, the man replied, ‘I thought ya’ll sold these delicious cakes here’. ‘No, sorry’. We left with some ice cream. My former boss and her husband had been living there only a few months but were enjoying the peacefulness and the amount of land they could afford compared to LA, where they were before. Being some of the few Latinos in their neighborhood and among many Trump signs on their street, they were also finding themselves in new territory, but as we ourselves were about to head into terra incognita, the South, we started to talk about how perhaps the problem with our country is that the two Americas don’t really interact with each other these days. We all agreed that, in LA for example, we seldom were confronted with people who were really that different from us. We talked about the upcoming elections, which Democratic candidate had what it took, we all mentioned a different one as our current favorite, but then we all agreed that one of them has to come out with the full support of the rest of the group if they wanted to get the majority of the voters and if they wanted to beat that embarrassment of a president we were then dealing with. It was nice to have some tostadas and company but we decided to keep moving and were on the road again, this time traveling towards St Louis.
We stopped just outside of town and found a hotel for the night. Our plan for the next day was to go into St Louis, tour the Arch, and then keep moving again, but the day before I remembered that the ancient town of Cahokia was close by, a place I had only recently become familiar with, and needed to see. Therefore, the next morning before we went into St Louis we went to the ancient mound city, an Illinois State Park, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the largest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico, and a place that most people in the US have never heard of. This to me was one of the most interesting parts of Cahokia, the fact that nobody knows about it. Plus, it may be one of the most mysterious sites in the ancient Americas. I had many questions in which I wanted to dig deeper into, but we were there on a Tuesday, and the park visitor center was closed, so I wouldn’t get to ask anybody about those questions. What I did know was that Cahokia was once the largest North American settlements with mounds made of moved earth, similar in shape and feel to those of Mesoamerica, like places such as Teotihuacan. The fact that right here in the US we have this sort of mega- significant prehistoric site right next to one of the most famous cities in the country, and nobody has ever heard of it, makes you wonder why that is. It seems that another Native American story and place was pushed aside, and purposefully disregarded. With all this swirling around in my head we started to walk the paths around the park and explore the mounds. Through the interpretive signs we learned that some of these mounds were sacred burial sites and many bodies were found within some of them. And because this place was made up of earthen mounds, much of it had been eroded away or decisively modified to accommodate a growing nation and its highways. From the highest mound there (the stairs leading up to it are used primarily as a workout site today) you can see the arch and St. Louis in the haze, after a brief view, we headed down the steep staircase as two heavy set woman were slowing making their way up, as if they were training for an expedition; water tubes, hats, running shoes, spandex, what a mound in a flat place attracts.
On this trip one of the things that kept happening, and that I had hoped would happen, was that my own country was surprising me in ways that I did not expect to be surprised in. Case in point, Gateway National Monument and the Arch. I didn’t even know you could go up the thing, and in a space age capsule as well. Up we went where a birds-eye view of the Mississippi lay below. The mighty river, which flows energetically towards New Orleans, the Delta, and the Atlantic, was moving fast. I asked the ranger up there at the top of the Arch if people take their private boats all the way down it. A boat captain on Lake Michigan had said that some people take their boats off of the lake before the hard freeze and follow water channels to the Mississippi and then take it all the way down to the ocean. She said that she didn’t think that was possible, not smart at least she said, too dangerous. With the nasty currents and all of the debris she, we could actually see large logs and debris floating by, there was a trip though, she said, a modern paddle boat that you could take the entire length of the river. What a way to experience the United States of America, I thought. Once we descended in the capsule we investigated the exhibits below in the newly renovated discovery center, it was hard to jive the images of Lewis and Clark exploring the great unknown with the modern industrial scene I saw from above. I was however, on a sort of personal endeavor and just being there and seeing the famous river for the first time, I felt as if I had crossed some threshold. It’s a site that anyone looking to understand the country must witness at least once in his or her life.
Huck Finn and Jim floating down the river, my wife and I floating down Interstate 55 skirting borders of states and exploring places that we had never been to. As we skimmed the lines between Missouri and Illinois with the Ozark boundary to our right we got into a discussion on the recent drug problems the people are facing there. Again, Magdalena was plying the Internet for stories that us city folk rarely hear of, the stories she found were heavy. Sheriffs, and community members, attracted to a life of crime and drugs, she read me an online article quoting a local man saying that the concentration of Baptist and Christian churches in the area attracts the devil, and because the angels are working so hard there, the strongest form of the devil is also encountered. She continued, telling me of a Sheriff turned ringleader who was dealing meth to his neighbors. And with local election after local election filled with these types of characters it was hard to understand how to beat this. At some point, she told me, the local people have just come to accept that this is their fate; meth, poverty, and corruption. We would find ourselves deep in the heart of Ozark country in just a couple days, but on this day we were going to Memphis.
The South, the music, the river, Beale Street, and the Lorraine Hotel were our destination that evening. We arrived late and it was hot, so we took short refuge in the hotel before walking towards the river. As the sun set and cast a warm magenta glow over the Mississippi, Nighthawks started swarming all around, and the colored lights of the bridges spanning the great river began to ignite. The bugs were aggressive and we dodged them all the way back to Beale Street where we took shelter over a plate of ribs at BB Kings Blues Club. I told Magdalena how I had once seen BB play at the Greek Theater in LA when I was just 12 years old. With a large cold beer in hand we listened to live music on a hot southern summer night. Outside, after the ribs and the band, we walked over to the Lorraine Hotel, now the civil rights museum. It was closed at that hour, but just the scene outside still set the story for one of the most tragic events in our history. Two 60’s sedans are parked just below the room where Dr. King was shot, and just behind the parking lot is the building where the killer took aim. It was hard to imagine that painful scene after such a pleasant evening in that charming town. We had drove through towns where the divide between white and black still stood out as absurdly as when Dr. King was killed, and all over the US today, Black, mostly young, unarmed men, and even women, are being shot and killed. Taking an innocent road trip through the USA is really no longer an option. Even the most naive with eyes closed, would find it hard to not be affected, or at least witness the gross inequality, mass shootings, class and color divides swirling all around the country. And I was aware that it was perhaps the color of my skin and my life history that made it so that I could travel freely throughout the USA without the very real fear that others have to contend with.
Into a strange land for the both of us, Arkansas and the Ozark hill country. Driving higher up into the hills it became clear that we had entered a place most people in the US know little about. We wanted to give it a chance and I wanted to try and understand what did this hill country of hollows and steep peaks and rolling rivers really look and feel like. My wife didn’t understand what a ‘Dry’ county was, so I tried to explain, but she was on her phone again, giving me stats on the state. How it had turned Red just recently, having been a Blue state in the past (Bill Clinton literally put Little Rock on the map), I wondered if it could ever turn Blue again, in these divided times. I was fully aware that our white complexions probably made it a whole lot easier for us to explore this place safely and without being monitored or even harassed. Another hot day, so we headed to the closest swimming hole. And what a nice hole it was, if it weren’t for the flies. Large flies, which attacked aggressively as soon as you were out of the water, and bore into your skin. Other than that, the water was cool and the scene quite beautiful. Not the frigid Sierra streams I was used to. We then checked into our hotel, an old Victorian home turned B&B and staffed by a friendly couple. After showing us the place they notified us that there would be a jam session later in the afternoon in the plaza directly in front of the house. This place was famous for pickers, they said, and just about every single night one could encounter some group gathered and playing music. Did I say it was hot? Not a whole lot of action on the small main street. We tried to stay in the shade while checking out the few antique stores just to kill some time before we went out to dinner. We had very few options, the Rainbow Café (not really in the mood for sandwiches) or a BBQ joint that appeared to be closed, and a Mexican place that had some action. We followed the buzz and wound up there, Stone County is a dry county but we noticed a flyer on the outside of the restaurant that was promoting a local petition trying to get an ordinance passed that would allow alcohol in restaurants. We would not be around to see the outcome of that battle, so I settled for a Pink Lemonade. Magdalena, a Chilean who never got into spicy foods, doesn’t like when I get excited about Mexican food because she knows it entails a whole list of things that only bring here dread. The Chileans, she has reminded me many times, are not spicy people, the cold Pacific brings them fresh seafood and they wear thick sweaters to stave off he cold coming down from the Andes, it is not Jalisco. Therefore, this Latina is not a fan of tacos, enchiladas, or burritos. I got some enchiladas, I don’t remember what she got. She asked me why is the lemonade pink? Good question, I replied.
After a forgettable dinner it turned out that the hotel owners were right about the jam in the plaza so we wandered on over and slipped into the small local crowd that had gathered to hear the country, folk, and bluegrass emanating from the tight group of pickers assembled. Listening to American folk music played in an Arkansas hill town was something I think you could consider an American treasure, and something that I could say I had heard.
The next morning we had breakfast at the B&B with the other guests and were treated to a classic Southern spread of biscuits, grtitz, bacon, eggs, pancakes, and more. This may have been the only time on our trip where we were forced to interact with people from outside of our cultural norms, and it proved to be an enlightening one. Just two other families were there, one elderly couple and another maternal family group. My wife, having never experienced gritz before was staring at the pudgy matter on the lazy Susan in front of her, and when that plate turned towards her, she couldn’t help but ask, what is this? Grtiz, the woman beside her said, as if it was plain as day obvious. When my wife asked, what is Gritz, she was given the same reply, well, it’s grtiz. I couldn’t really help her in that moment, being a Southern Californian, I knew just about as much as she did about this staple of the south. So we left it at that and after sharing our stories around the table and getting to know one another a bit better, we got our things together and said goodbye to our kind hosts.
I spoke with the gentleman about Arkansas before we left, the free map we procured somewhere along the road called it, The Natural State. I told our host that being from California I would have never have thought about it in such a way, our host agreed that it was kind of a secret, and he assured me that we were on our way to sample one of the states finest treasures, the Buffalo National River. Driving through that part of Arkansas is very pleasant, the we followed the path of the Buffalo for a little while before we stopped in the main visitor center. The ranger at the front desk there directed us to another swimming hole after warning us to stay away off the trails because the seed ticks were plentiful (whatever a seed tick is?). We drove a bit further, and found a beautiful beach along a stretch of the wild river. A snake swam lazily down it as we swam out to the cool center of it. The scene was tranquil and beautiful, however after a quick dip, we were on the road again. As we snaked through the hills higher and higher my wife lamented to me that we had not been to the part of the Ozarks she was familiar with from popular culture and shows like ‘The Ozarks’, which showcase and dramatize the poverty and drug addiction of the area. I tried to assure her that what we saw was also interesting and special, without all the drama. We both agreed, driving around looking for trouble during these troubled times, is probably not a good idea. Pretty soon we were crossing over another state line as the sun was beginning to set, and then we were in Oklahoma. Poteau OK is just outside of the Huachita National Forest and we were excited to drive through some of this rugged forested country on one of our final legs of the trip. And we knew we would lose the forest and the hills soon as we were headed to Dallas the next day. We checked into one of the two hotels there in Poteau, and discovered that there was also only two places to eat there, a gas stop and a BBQ restaurant, we choose the restaurant.
The next morning the light was hitting the Pinyon and Juniper forest as we drove the small country road, through rolling hills with mountains on both sides, my view of Oklahoma as a flat dusty landscape was forever changed. It may be that the western and northern parts of the state are such, but there on the eastern edge it was rugged and gorgeous. However, we would have to leave the Huachita after not too long and things did start to dry up a bit after that. I commented to my wife that much of the roads we had been on reminded me of places where you could still find a kind of “Outlaw America”, places where the Hells Angels probably had real estate, and I’m pretty sure we even passed some sort of Minuteman headquarters at some point. It would seem fitting that they would have a presence there in Oklahoma, where roadside kiosks were vending confederate flags with slogans like History Ain’t a Crime. I wanted to see the hometown of Woody Guthrie, I wanted to see the places where the dustbowl refugees fled from, and how the geography of that time dictated where people would go, but his would be another one of those states that we would merely pass through, making our observations and conjectures from our comfortable car seats. I would have liked to get to know all of the places we went to better, stop in a few more curio stores and have a couple of cups of coffee on the main drags, but on our road trip, movement was the mantra. That being said, we were both proud of the ground that we had covered, and for the mini inner transformations that had begun to take place. My wife always reminds me that she is an American too, in fact most South Americans will tell you this, and I totally understand her but it’s hard for us, I tell her, to leave that label behind. We grow up hearing it again and again, and we identify with it, and we identify the landscape with it, It’s the Great American Road Trip I tell her. Whatever we are, we in the USA belong to a wide-ranging country that is somehow able to withhold all these disparate locations and cultures. It’s the country of Samuel Clemens and James Baldwin, Beyonce and Miley Cirus, diverse in so many ways, and evolving into something new and unknown every day.
When looking at the map, I mean the GPS on your phone, as you approach ways to get into central Texas, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one is not shy of options. Numerous highways appear from all directions with most, if not all, converging towards the Dallas metropolitan area. I don’t remember which one we chose, but there we were driving to the heart of Texas, and I couldn’t help singing some of those 90’s country songs that were still stuck in my head after all those years, (George Straight and Garth Brooks) at times I sang them out loud, but of course to my wife they meant nothing. Texas was another one of those places that I had never been to, only heard of, and heard a lot about. The state that probably more than any other, has a reputation that precedes itself. In recent times the state had been making news by sucking in Californians who were looking for cheaper rent and new starts, this phenomenon had even affected me personally, with essentially half of my family moving there in the past two years. Both my mom and my sister separately found themselves in Cowboy country, and therefore I now felt somewhat connected to this mythic place too. So it seemed fitting that we would end our road trip there, in the big D. A place I found to be very similar in many ways to suburban Southern California, which was not a big surprise, as most large Western cities tend to take on a similar feel. All of them being essentially wide ranging suburbs finally converging into small and concentrated urban zones. It was hot, really hot this time, with the concrete of the metropolitan zone compounding it and all the smog from the 400,000 Ford crew cab trucks zooming around the uncountable number of express ways, it was Texas hot. After visiting with my family and doing as much big box shopping as we could, it was finally time to return the car to the airport and check in for our flights.
Back here in Brazil, I can now say that I know my country better than I before we had taken this trip. Like a lot of foreigners here in São Paulo, I teach English classes to mostly young and middle aged professionals looking to improve their English skills. Many, if not all of them, have been to the US at some point, some even work for companies with offices and headquarters positioned there. Now, when one of those students tells me about their business trip to Ohio I can nod, and say oh yes yes, Ohio, nice place. I could even recommend places for them to visit, say, oh yeah, and next time you’re there, you might slip down to Cuyahoga National Park and take a walk. When I think about the USA today, I believe I have a more complete and focused image in my mind. I always understood that the parts that make up the 50 states and the territories are complex. The histories and cultures that they have contained over time have shaped their character and the characters living there today. Of course, I still have a lot to see, and my wife and I are already scheming on finding ways to extend the road trip, and take it further, into more uncharted territory for us both. We’re already talking about the South; Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida for the next trip. And after that, perhaps the Northeast; Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. And then finally, a big expedition into the Pacific Northwest and up to Alaska.