“You do not take a trip. The trip takes us.”—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
Thursday Dec. 28, 2017: Day One: The Cold Start: We left Boston on this bright sunny Thursday morning, hoping to say goodbye as quickly as possible to its temperature: only 6 degrees F. About an hour into our trip west, the turnpike in front of us was slowed to a crawl because everyone in our lane was looking across to the other side, ogling the aftermath of a disastrous accident. The rubberneckers were staring at the remains of a tractor trailer, whose entire metal side was ripped open. Bags of garbage that the truck was apparently carrying were now stacked neatly along the median. The maimed truck was surrounded by a dozen blinking emergency vehicles, including two official environmental hazard vans. The responders must have been there for hours, cleaning things up. The fate of the driver was unclear.
Ignoring this dark omen, we pressed forward toward our first goal: reconnecting along the way with dear friends. We asked for their advice. Reaching across the great American divide wasn’t going to be easy; how could we strike up a meaningful conversation about politics, with a stranger? “Ask, ‘what do you hope for’?” our New Haven friend suggested. I thought to add, “in 2018,” so that the New Year might be our excuse for a chat. The people from moveon.org had suggested starting with “What keeps you up at night?” as the icebreaker after you invited Trump and anti-Trump folks into your home to find common ground.
Neither one sounded like an easy line to drop into a passing conversation about football or winter weather, but we resolved to look for our opportunities as we stop in cafes, gas stations and laundromats across the Bible Belt.
Our first day’s drive was too long. After a memorable lunch in New Haven, we inched south on 95, a miserable highway from Boston to Annapolis that is always choked with traffic. Who were all these people creeping along next to us, and why did they have to be on the road at the exact same time we were? The winter solstice sky darkened early, as we passed the smokestacks of industrial Newark. Our anticipated seven-hour drive, which started at 9:15 a.m., took us almost 12 hours! We covered nearly 450 miles, pulling up finally at 8:45 p.m. in the Annapolis driveway of old friends from my Washington days.
At the end of a cosy dinner, Susy, who is an experienced political operative, took up our invitation to appraise the current political mood in Maryland. People are optimistic, she said, because they see the Alabama and Virginia elections as a harbinger of change. Politics today are all about change, she said. And if the Democrats can be the change, they can bring the country back from the brink. They don’t have to have a national figurehead or party narrative for the 2018 midterms. Instead, the elections need to be about each individual candidate in each district. A national figure could even be a distraction, muddling the fresh flow of candidates and narratives necessary to reanimate the Democratic Party.
Friday Dec. 29. Day Two: We Are Victims of A Crime
We had brought in our many suitcases for the night, because there was a rumor of a past car break-in in the neighborhood. We didn’t anticipate the danger of an inside job. Our hosts’ two highly intelligent dogs, Ulla and Cate, in the darkness unzipped my briefcase, unwrapped and devoured all four sports bars I had stashed there. They purloined our new audio book of Truman, by David McCullough and put impressive fang marks into the fancy wrapped soap I was carrying as a hostess gift.
After discovering the canine crime scene, we enjoyed a jovial breakfast and hit the road at 10:30 a.m. It was more than three times warmer than Boston, but still freezing and overcast at 21 degrees F. Heading through the Shenandoah mountains west on 66 and then south on 81, we nearly stopped to see the Bull Run battlefield and the Luray Caverns. But the weather was too cold and we wanted to make progress. So we plunged into the famously poor Appalachian area of western Virginia, past farmhouses that needed paint, large mining company outposts, and the flattened hilltops created by their strip mining. Politically, this is a Trump stronghold where people feel left behind by the global economy, immigration and the metrosexual Democratic Party.
We stopped at a tavern for a hamburger lunch, admiring the football on the TV and all the craft beer options. I didn’t have the nerve to ask the family sitting at the next table for their thoughts about America these days. Maybe our plan to talk about politics to random strangers was a bad idea?
We ended up for the night in the small town of Christiansburg, where in 1774, the not-yet-famous folk hero Daniel Boone escaped his creditors by leaving for Kentucky. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christiansburg,_Virginia A century later, this jumping-off supply town for the travelers west was booming. New Victorian mansions lined the broad streets, optimistic landmarks of the Gilded Age. This was an era when social Darwinism justified economic inequality and the country was pressing its “manifest destiny” westward.
We found, on the second to last day of 2017, that Christianburg’s streets were utterly deserted, and its stores all closed up. There wasn’t even a bar to brighten the Friday night chill. We took a room in one of the magnificent old mansions, The Oaks Victorian B&B, and headed out to dinner in another old Victorian house, The Summit. The place had a bitter past. Its first owner in 1888 fell on hard times and had to swap houses, five years later, with his brother-in-law. The original owner’s fortunes improved again a few years after that, but his brother-in-law wouldn’t swap back. The family lived unhappily ever after.
Saturday Dec. 30. Day Three: Nashville
Driving past the exit for Dolly Parton’s theme park, on I-40 W, we started to appreciate the billboards:
“The World’s Largest Knife Store”
“Machine Gun Rentals”
“Land Shark Bar and Grill”
“Real Christians Love their Enemies”
“The State’s Largest Selection of Moonshine”
“WRECK?”-Five Star Attorney
“I Took Control of Myself and got HIV Testing”
We stopped at the Cracker Barrel in Knoxville for lunch , where we met a friendly woman willing to talk about politics. Too many Americans are motivated by fear, she said. “The American dream came apart with Vietnam…There is a huge backlash against Obama. There was no way this country was going to go from a black to a female.” The textile and steel jobs went away, and people “appreciated having someone finally notice.” There is no frame of reference for what Trump actually does. “Trump sends the news that people want to hear.” If they identify with the Confederacy, it’s because that’s a fixed identity that they can return to, in the midst of all this global change. As I listened, I wished that instead of tearing down Confederate statues, we could add new plaques identifying what these famous southern leaders were doing, and why it was wrong.
I listened to the Tennessee woman’s advice about conversing with political opposites: Mix moments of eye contact with walking or driving that doesn’t require face-to-face confrontation. For example, agree to meet someone for dinner. But then walk together, side by side, across the parking lot to the restaurant. It may be easier to talk about sensitive issues during the walk.
It was 20 degrees when we got to Nashville, but the Grand Ole Opry show at Ryman Auditorium was sizzling hot. The music and showmanship were world class, a pleasure to experience even from our obstructed side seats. We noticed that the crowd on and off the stage consisted almost entirely of white people. I was glad that the Old Crow Medicine Show front man at least paid special tribute to Chuck Willis, the first black Grand Ole Oprey star, who wrote “C.C. Rider.” As we flooded back onto the icy street, looking for the shuttle bus back to our hotel in Opryland, young revelers in shirtsleeves were thronging in and out of music bars and honky tonks, as if this were just another warm Saturday night.
My Nashville cousin and his wife joined us for breakfast Sunday. He said 2018 would be a bellweather for Tennessee politics, with both the Senate and Governor’s seat open. It could go either way, with strong experienced Democrats poised to do well—maybe. No one wanted to count out Trump’s ability to dominate the narrative, to his party’s advantage. “The greatest thing about America is our ability to muddle through,” he concluded, leaving us on an optimistic note as we plunged southward, through the Tennessee countryside, to our appointed New Year’s Eve at Graceland.
Sunday Dec. 31 Day Four: A Southern Duel before we get to Graceland
As we left Nashville, we stopped at the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s estate, just a few miles from Opryland. Here we saw a re-enactment of The Duel. This courtly game of chicken was used to settle scores. Duels were illegal, and not actually fatal two-thirds of the time in the antebellum South. The Gentlemen involved, hoping to avoid legal problems, referred to their pistol showdowns as seeking “satisfaction” for an insult or a debt. Duels both made and then ruined Jackson’s reputation with his peers as a Tennessee gentleman. Of course there were other behaviors that were more important: he was an unapologetic slaveholder and he orchestrated the genocide of Native Americans on an unprecedented scale. He is still remembered by some, however, for establishing the Democratic party as a populist, with a keen interest in defending the little guy against the powerful interests that ran American business. The ghost of Trump was following us everywhere, and seemed particularly vivid at Jackson’s homestead.
Most surprising, in this white supremacist’s homestead, was the staff at the Hermitage café, where we had a delicious home-cooked lunch. It was run by an Uzbek couple, whose cashier was Albina, a young woman from Ufa in the Ural mountains of Russia. We had noticed other immigrants, mostly East Asian ones, in the fortified payment booths at gas stations and convenience stores along the highway. I asked one gas station cashier how he happened to come to the American South from India, and he said he discovered the job opening on the Internet. Now said he now runs three such Tennessee highway convenience stores. Before our trip, we had heard a story on NPR about how immigrants working at a southern chicken processing factory had lined up the night before for the precious job openings, beating out the local Americans who came in the morning. Arlie Hochschild’s book, “Strangers in their Own Land,” retells how “Tea Party” (Trump) supporters in Louisiana see this differently: minorities and immigrants seem to be cutting in line in front of them on the path to the American dream, getting unfair advantages like Affirmative Action, all along the way.
At 6 p.m. we pulled up to The Guest House at Graceland, a five star hotel which opened just a year and a half ago. Its fancy lobby and guest rooms were full of huge Elvis photos and loops of Elvis music playing on the TVs and in the gift shop. We quickly changed into our party duds and headed over to the ballroom for the New Year’s Eve champagne buffet with 19-piece-orchestra for dancing.
We found ourselves at a remote table with a family of five from Iowa, who were in town for a big football game, and a family of 3 from Melbourne, Australia, who were touring America. I wanted to ask the Iowa father my questions about politics, but only screwed up enough courage to ask “Do you have any New Year’s resolution?” He said it was to spend more time with his wife. Not a good entrée to further discourse. The Washington Post story Jan. 2 on how Iowans are souring on Trump had not yet hit the Internet. https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/iowa-went-big-for-trump-but-there-are-signs-its-voters-are-souring-on-the-president/2018/01/01/e84cc764-e73c-11e7-833f-155031558ff4_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.8f00767ca2de&wpisrc=nl_politics&wpmm=1
The Iowa man’s wife told the Australians that she runs three businesses in their small Iowa town: a gift shop, a flower store, and a Christian store. The woman from Australia looked dumfounded. “What is a Christian store?” she asked in genuine confusion. “We sell religious items,” she said, adding that some Christians don’t want to pay for what they pick up there because they “believe that God provides.” The four teenagers, including her own daughter, looked down at their phones. Soon we were all making discrete exits from the party. The orchestra “sounds like Lawrence Welk,” complained one silver haired granny, who like the rest of us, left early and headed for the lobby, where more exciting things were going on.
This party was a little bit lame…