by Margaret Jo Parsons
Like many things worth doing, my first try wasn’t successful.
At the tender and idealistic age of 23, I helped two handy friends convert an old bluebird school bus into a passable home, and we set off to circumnavigate the nation by road. Unfortunately, the social bonds tying us together, stressed by cramped quarters and dwindling cash reserves, snapped just north of Tucson. The bus, unable to run on the fumes of dreams alone, puttered to a standstill. I, cursing my idealistic temperament, used the rest of my savings to fly home to Montana.
However, my curiosity lingered, unabated by small road trips around the northwest United States. I wanted to fill in my hollow imaginings of Southern plantations, East Coast citadels, and craggy Maine with the substance of personal experience.
So, a year later, I mustered the courage…or was it something more stubborn, harebrained, and self-serving than courage? And tried once more.
This time, the trip was approached with more humility. I downsized from the extravagantly spacious interior of a bus to the old Jeep I had loved since early college years. Instead of two travel companions, I had one. Perhaps most significantly, instead of vowing to capture every significant occurrence on video to make a documentary, we decided just to see it ourselves, and come what may.
During our journey, in between sobbing because the only campsite in 100 miles was unexpectedly closed and finally finding the mythically perfect Southern BBQ stand, we pondered at how our passage trans-continent differed from those that preceded it. Those earnest travelers whose journeys, immortalized on the silver screen or book pages, inspired, delighted, and troubled us. From the wild-spirited and ill-fated Christopher McCandless (of Into the Wild) to Kerouac’s intoxicated meanderings in On the Road, we knew we were not the first to seek the open road in hot pursuit of something that both is and is not the antithesis of the American dream.
Although we were leaving well-paying jobs and comfortable places to lay our heads down at night, we felt we were participating in something larger than ourselves – an odyssey to pay homage to the American. Or, at the very least, we knew it was a motivation that dwelled at least a little deeper than the social approbation of Facebook likes our far-flung photographs were apt to garner.
We wondered if we would suddenly stumble across the reason, as educated and employable members of the millennial generation, that we felt compelled to forsake good jobs and a fantastically comfortable and predictable place to sleep, to live in our car in the style of transients for half a calendar year. Exactly what were we looking for?
The answer has taken a year and a half to slowly emerge from the swirling pool of memories and impressions.
I wanted to fall in love with the country I was born in.
I wanted to know it to the level I had known my childhood friends, when we stayed up at sleepovers talking ceaselessly under the glow of stick-on constellations. This meant knowing the hues of its sunsets, the flowers in its ditches, and how alleyways in Gallup, New Mexico differed from those in Nebraska.
I wanted to inhabit my citizenship like a beloved garment, instead of the ill-fitting uniform my personal perspectives and worldview awkwardly stretch to fit within. I realized that this love would not be given to me, the same way the experiences of my young adulthood had helped me realize that all forms of love require vulnerability, courage, and persistence to really flourish.
Of course, our journey failed to be entirely comprehensive. Our dispositions and interests drove us towards particular destinations, and away from others.
However, we saw enough.
We met up with a young woman in Seattle utilizing the unused land of organizations like women’s shelters to grow food for the shelter and surrounding community, combating the pervasive scarcity of healthy food in our low-income communities.
We met others too, too numerous to mention, whose passions and skills are catalyzing positive change in their communities.
We also paid witness to the extremes of poverty and prosperity in America as we, in turn, traveled through Flint, West Baltimore, and Southern Louisiana – adding visuals to my understanding of inequity and dissolution of community.
We heard divisive politics espoused, tensions voiced, and saw much in the way of sadness and difficulty in individuals’ lives.
We saw many, many sunsets.
Today, occupying a nation anxious and divided, as we collectively sigh and ponder how to proceed, I am more grateful than ever that I took the time to restore that which is American within me.
It will be the amulet I grasp as I step forward, heart ablaze, into the American future I now have reason to believe is possible. It will be that cloak, stitched in the threads the color of those sunsets, ditch flowers, distant street signs, and evergreen covered hills wrapped around my shoulders.