The 7,000-mile road trip covered 25 states and took about 3 months to complete in three parts. (Part 1, light blue; part 2, red; part 3, dark blue)
Many people fly past Greensburg. And to tell you the truth, plenty even drive past it. The town is small, quaint, rural and remote — just another unsung slice of Midwest America. Yet Greensburg does have a home right here in Kansas, where the tallest buildings are eight-story grain silos that stand like stoic sentinels across the barren southern plains. Here the wind whistles past at 35mph, and tumbleweeds travel like projectiles with an uncanny ability of brutalizing bumpers. You rarely see people; it feels empty.
“There are a lot less people out here,” a 29-year-old miner in Leadville, Colorado told me. “In this part of the country, you got to drive a few exits before you get to the next town. In the East, y’all got a town at every exit!”
There is indeed a sense that this part of the nation is disconnected, sometimes to such an extent that you can feel the town’s collective abandonment, lose and distain. The factories, rail stations and mechanic warehouses look like they aren’t being used as much as they once were. Some Kansan agricultural depots — the veins of nourishment to America’s stomach — have fallen into neglect as big industry and global competition has taken over. Warehouses are rotting, grain silos are hollow and the town is so devoid of people that the only conversation the sidewalks provide are the tinkling chatter between wind chimes.
A lot of money was sopped up from the rural areas of Middle America and transferred to urban, coastal cities, starting in the 1960s when the job market’s shift from industrial- to serviced-based jobs began. These digitally connected modern metropolises boomed and wealth grew with every financial tower, but the magnetism of this capitalistic force created an ever widening chasm between living standards.
Today the US has the largest income inequality rate of the world’s developed nations, and no where is inequality’s economically destabilizing repercussions evident more than here in the US’s hinterlands. In fact, the three most violent cities draw a line straight across the Midwest — from Detroit to St. Louis to New Orleans, in that order. These cities aren’t exemplars of positive change, either. Detroit’s former distinction as the country’s Motor City — the manufacturing machine of the US — has since become a poster child for economic misery and industrial decay. St. Louis was last year the epicenter for one of the most racially incensed debates the country has seen in decades. And over 10 years on, damage from Hurricane Katrina can still be spotted in greater New Orleans — homes are boarded up, and, if a gimlet eye employed, water marks can still be seen stained on plastic shingles.
Yet places like Greensburg, though part of that unshakably forsaken Midwest condition, remind me that the tiny towns are still connected to that true American boldness and unashamed sense of pride that says: “Hey, look at me!” Indeed, they are the heart of America.
“Out of all the ‘out there’ places and paths you’ve gone, the one I find the most shocking is this trip across the US,” a Canadian friend told me after hearing about my intended cross-country journey.
“You’ll probably begin to notice what a strange place you come from,” she said.
That ineffable oddness that is tagged to the US personality is forged from somewhere deep within the borders, somewhere like Kansas, somewhere that is individualistic in its interpretation of American diversity.
Greensburg is home to the world’s largest hand-dug well. At 109 feet deep, the “Big Well” is emblematic of roadside Americana — that at times hypnotizing, at times repulsive sub-culture. It is this soul that jolts into motion the cradle of American ideology and gives birth to our boldness and beauty; our extremes and disillusions.
Another line is drawn across the Kansas plain, this one by oil and gas majors that tap the grounds from Texas to North Dakota. Gun control is the least restrictive in the hinterlands. Unafraid of the federal government undermining their state prerogative, Colorado leads the way with marijuana delegalization. Immigration reforms have the most impact. Racial divides are widening due to antagonism. The mountains tall. The bayou battered. And buffalo, burly and indolent, still roam.
These overlooked but undeniably symbiotic states were now on the radar. “I want to drive across America, I always have,” said John, my former boss, who has just recently moved back to the US. The founding idea behind the trip is to dovetail the American spirit in to the book we are writing about his life in Asia by peering through the lesser known parts of the US.
Yes, the 7,000-mile, 3-month-long road trip opened our eyes to the immensity of the US’s size and cultural gravity, but it also provided a close up of the conflicting systems that precariously balance the country’s diversity; it truly is a system that is embattled yet sustained by the variance of voices that compose it. Through the trip, I began to wonder if being loud and proud is an inevitable product of the American way, the undying prelude to that so-oft talked of dream.
Below is a photo essay of this road trip, a zeitgeist of America.
1) Independence Pass, Colorado
A hairpin turn looms ahead on Independence Pass, Colorado, over 12,000 feet above sea level
2) Las Vegas, Nevada
Established, vintage, yet sexy — Las Vegas. Sin City, as it is still cheekily known, had the highest amount of undocumented foreign workers in the US until Obama granted amnesty last November, which happened on our very last day there.
3) Nogales, Arizona
4) Taos, New Mexico
The US-Mexico border wall from the Arizona side of Nogales City. Far from the Berlin Wall, the Gaza barrier or the Great Wall, the border here isn’t so much an impermeable edifice as a well-managed gateway. The core section of the wall has a mesh fence; people can be spotted chattering across it. There is an active turnstile counting traffic from Nogales, Mexico to Nogales, Arizona, the latter of which has become a popular day trip destination for shoppers. “Even though they [in Mexico] have a Walmart, they still like to come to this side to shop at our Walmart,” a restaurant owner told me. “I was born here and many shops and shopkeepers only speak Spanish, although we are in the US.”
The largest adobe building in the Taos Pueblo of the Tiwa-speaking Native American people also happens to be the oldest. Not just in the village, but the US. Estimated to be over 1,000 years old, this building has been continuously lived in since it was established and still features ancient kilns which the Tiwa people use to cook bread and fire ceramics. The Tiwa language has no written form and is today only retained by oral history and colloquial speech.
5) Durango, Colorado; Silverton Colorado
This American Victorian-style hotel built in 1887 is an apt window to how Eastern tastes migrated West along with frontiersmen. I stayed in a room that was once occupied by Will Rogers, a famous Cherokee Indian comedian and actor.
Silverton was cloaked in a fresh snow when we drove over the Million Dollar Highway, a hazardous vertiginous path through some of the steepest gorges in Colorado.
6) Abilene, Kansas
Abilene is a husk of a former industrial town that is home to a former president. The only attraction of note is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum and a mansion that was once the largest residential building between St. Louis and Denver. “Y’all come here for the Eisenhower Museum, ain’t yea?” a barman in Abilene righty inquired, exposing the only two teeth he had left on his bottom jaw by the end of that question. “We got a painting of him too on main street,” he said proudly. “Just go up there and take a picture, but don’t get too close, ’cause then it don’t really look like ‘im.”
7) Ferguson, Missouri
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?” the woman asked as we alighted from our Volvo. It was already noon and she was carrying two plastic bags with about six Styrofoam boxes in each filled with fried chicken and rice. It was a Sunday and she was delivering the meals with seven children as helpers that were wearing black T-shirts with bright white lettering the read: “Unarmed Civilian.” Less than 10 meters from where the woman currently stood, Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in an incident that would become the epicenter of one of America’s most racially incensed debates in decades. Local hardware stores, gas stations, the Dollar General, furniture outlets and restaurants were looted and razed in subsequent reactionary riots that catalyzed discussion in the US over much more than the legalities of that fateful night in Ferguson. In a show of empathy and humanity, we offered to say a prayer with the mother and the children before they continue with their deliveries, to ask that we as a country may one day understand each other better and dissolve the mutual antagonism that still seems flicker.
John and I with some of Ferguson’s Sunday community volunteers
8) Galion, Ohio
We stopped by Galion, Ohio where I visited estranged family. On the town’s quiet and aging main street, next to shops with “For Sale” signs, the Galion Theater stands like a monument to the town’s heydays, when the thoroughfare was filled with the clammer of pedestrians. Note: Photo taken from web
9) Union Square, New York City
A Philipp Glas rendition in the park on a mobile piano acts a reminder of just how much spontaneous creativity is a part of the soul of the city I call home.
10) Capitol Hill, Washington DC
Perhaps the world’s most powerful building, the US Capitol is where proposals and approvals of action for the world’s largest army are made.
11) Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Do these steps look familiar? The Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond, Virginia was used for the shooting of the famous staircase scene in Gone with the Wind
12) Waffle House, North Carolina
Few things are as imbued with the sense of southern flavor as the Waffle House. It was a perfect breakfast location to catch up on one of North Carolinans premier periodicals, the NC Slammer, where criminals convicted of felonies and misdemeanors are pilloried for all to see.
13) South of the Border, South Carolina
South of the Border has been trapping Yankee tourists on their way south with gift shops along I-95 since the 1950s. Its plaster animal statues (including gators and kangaroos) are Americana incarnate, and though the gift shops and restaurants are a mere shadow of what they once were, they still manage to allure some road trippers looking for a quick taste of nostalgia.
14) Savannah, Georgia
Reminiscent of a begotten age, the Spanish moss hangs from trees along the river front in Savannah.
15) Daytona Beach, Florida
A final sunrise over the Atlantic after one week in Florida.
16) New Orleans, Louisiana
A French voodoo inhabits the air around downtown New Orleans, seducing those with its fatality and love for the sublime serenades of street musicians. I caught a scene from the shooting of New Orleans NCIS, pictured here, which involved Scott Bakula in a Mardi Gras setting — just a few weeks before Fat Tuesday.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, sending much of the city back into the swamp. Ten years on, a lot of that damage is still visible in the outskirt of New Orleans proper. National flood insurance is now mandatory for all residents to buy into, making it too expensive to rebuild these damaged homes.
17) Dallas, Texas; Amarillo, Texas
‘X’ marks the spot where President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on November 22, 1963 in the heart of Dallas, a place considered the gateway to the city.
The Big Texan in Amarillo — home to one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.
18) The Oklahoman Panhandle
Buffalo still roam across patches of Oklahoma (as well as Wyoming and Colorado), despite once being hunted into near extinction. Oklahoma, in particular, is a pee tree dish of preservation, a state that was in the late 19th Century home to the first interracial school, given its low population and location at the crossroads between the East and West.
19) Kansan prairie
Oil pumps bob up and down along the Kansan prairie. Note: Photo taken from web
20) Denver from high
A final shot of Denver from the plane