When you set off to drive across the country with two drivers, your worldly possessions, and your pet stuffed animal corgi, you try to keep your expectations manageable. After all, how meta could 50 hours of driving over ~3500 miles be? Well…pretty darn meta actually.
In our many hours of traversing the great swathes of America, there are a couple of obvious lessons that jump out at you:
One, America LOVES its roads. All the politicians seem to love talking about crumbling infrastructure, but we never saw crumbling roads and bridges. Instead we saw miles and miles of roadwork…a lot of which didn’t seem to exist. That is—lanes blocked off with orange cones for miles and big huge signs, but not a single worker in sight. Not a problem in Nevada or Wyoming, but a BIG problem in Indiana. Want to cause a 7 mile traffic jam? Just put a few orange cones out there.
Two, America isn’t just big, it’s big and rural in a lot of places. Living in the West, you expect empty spaces: like mountain ranges, deserts, and whatnot. Most of Nevada is empty space, and large swathes of California are too. However as you go East, the empty spaces get filled in. Sometimes they get filled in with people, but a lot of times they get filled in with farms. Farms and farms and windmills and farms. Farms with silos and barns. Little farms next to a clump of trees amidst big open fields. Big farms with multiple buildings and machines. We used to be a nation of farmers; now we’re a nation of investors, healthcare workers, tech companies, fast food employees, but still also farmers.
The upshot of this is that I also realized how easy it is to forget about a huge section of the population: the white working class, especially the rural white working class. In places like the Bay Area, the white working class is far less visible, usually because they’ve been forced out to faraway places like Morgan Hill and Tracy. But in the rural areas, a white working class is very much visible. It’s a whole aesthetic: it’s cars (pickup trucks), clothing (trucker hats, t-shirts, athletic-type shorts), even sunglasses (multi-colored reflective/athletic). No, really: this was a thing. Through most of South Dakota you see pickups and trucks. However as we got closer to Mt. Rushmore suddenly we started seeing a lot more Subarus. Turns out, the Subarus were often from…you guessed it…liberal states! Vermont, Illinois, Minnesota. You don’t want to judge a person by their car, but you might be able to guess their politics.
However the most notable thing about Trumpland wasn’t its overwhelming whiteness, but the fact that it was sort of…rundown. The farms don’t look like the ones in kids’ books, with the bright red barns and the gleaming silver silos. The paint is flaking and the silos are rusting, and that’s just what we could see from the interstate. It was like touring an old un-renovated apartment from the 1920s: you know it’ll still keep the rain out and the heat in, but there’s cracks in the walls and the radiator clanks. In particular, downtown Wheeling, WV felt like a town that was decaying from the inside: empty streets, crumbling buildings, urban blight. I’m sure we only got a single cross section of the town, but the one we got painted a grim picture.
So when people talk about populist anger, it’s not impossible to see where it might be coming from. In these places, modernity has mostly led to changes that have hurt them, like the weakening of the working class, the slow decline of coal, the withering of American civic organizations, are ticked off. Sure, they now have iPhones, but they haven’t benefitted from globalization and the modern economy like the coasts have. Instead they’re being told (perhaps by unreliable sources) that they won’t be able to eat meat anymore or celebrate Christmas, and that environmentalism is going to make gas so expensive that they won’t be able to drive to the store. For people who must feel that so much has been already slowly taken away from them, the idea of losing more must seem unacceptable.
Fittingly, our trip has ended in the 4thof July, which fell at the end of our first week in New Haven. As I watched the fireworks, I found myself reflecting on the last big lesson from our trip: for all the talk of anti-Asian hate, our journey was relatively racism-free. Before the trip, my Dad had warned us of anti-Asian sentiment, and even regaled us with an anecdote from his own cross-country roadtrip 30 years ago, when he suspected a gas station attendant of filling up his tank with sand. But even though we drove through the heart of Trumpland, not a single thing actually happened to us. No sand in the tank. True, there were a couple of places where we felt uncomfortable, but it was always a feeling, and never anything more. People were perfectly nice and polite to us; nobody said a thing; one man in South Dakota even welcomed us to the town and tried to get us to take shots with him in the local bar (only Jeff was brave enough to do it).
That’s why, as red, white, and blue exploded over East Rock this 4th of July, I found myself remembering that we are one country. Sometimes with today’s political rhetoric, it’s hard to remember that although we might vehemently disagree with the other side, unless there is a secession or second Civil War, we still have to live together. We’re roommates for life. The lease doesn’t end and there isn’t an eviction clause. Even if it’s sometimes distasteful or difficult, we do have to figure out how to live together. What this roadtrip showed me is that, despite how different we are, despite how vast this country is, and despite how polarized things have become, living together might not be so ridiculous of an idea after all.