Road Trip VII, Days 32-34, Sheridan, WY back to Lopez Island: Going to America, Big-Time

When we Lopez Islanders take the ferry to the mainland, we call it “going to America.” We are literally insulated–“insula” being Latin for “island.”

Road trips take Going to America to a new level. 34 days. 23 states plus one Canadian province. A (rough) total of 65 friends and family members. More bike paths than I can remember.

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

The Mate and I set out on our seventh Road Trip more or less as usual: same camping gear (barely used, thanks to the weather), same cooler, same road food. (Remind me to tell you about Noodlebag sometime!) And of course, same ol’ Red Rover.

In the ferry line: almost home!!!!

But something felt different this year, striking out across this huge, gloriously varied country. That something was our new president. Knowing I was driving through state after state where the majority had voted for Donald Trump made me…cringe a little. Mainstream Republican is one thing. But this pussy-grabbing, egomaniacal, racist ogre? How was I possibly going to relate to my fellow citizens in the rest areas, parks and motel lobbies?

The answer: focus on our American commonalities.

Commonality #1: Sports. We sports fanatics share as much passion–maybe more–as political parties. Tarheel Nation probably comprises a lot of Trump voters. When we’re cheering our beloved Heels to another possible national championship, we love each other.

Haven’t made it to the Dean Dome since ’15, but–there in spirit!

Commonality #2: Love of landscape. Whether we love it for loud recreation like snowmobiling and hunting, or more quiet pursuits like hiking or horseback riding, I know our love of the beauty of the land is the same. We might use different language–“sacred” vs. “awesome,” “transcendent” vs. “niiiiiice”–but we are talking about the same thing.

“Whose woods these are I think I know…”

Best way to appreciate nature: be a tree!

Commonality #3: Judgementalism. Somehow, I find comfort in knowing we all share this flaw. A small example: I find myself feeling “judgy” when staying with friends who don’t compost or recycle, or who buy produce that comes from halfway around the world. But at the same time, I have friends who probably judge ME for my ginormous carbon footprint, with all the driving and flying I do.

A larger example: Indian Country. We passed, and passed through, many reservations across America. Somehow the land that makes the most impression on me is in the rural mountain West–probably because, unlike the eastern states and the west coast, the swath that runs from Montana south to New Mexico LOOKS THE SAME as it did 150 years ago. (Again–not talking cities here. Just the land.) Driving past the site of Little Big Horn or Sand Creek, for example, I have no trouble visualizing exactly what those warriors and soldiers would have seen as they confronted each other, or the view families would have had from their encampments.

All that land was theirs. Now almost none of it is; it’s been swallowed up by a dominant, unsympathetic culture. If I were Native, would I be able to contain my rage? So who am I now to feel like my country’s been hijacked by the supporters of Donald Trump? I’m still part of the mainstream.

I’m not saying “it’s all relative.” Of course there are extremes I don’t hesitate to call Bad: pussy-grabbing, for instance. Big no-no. But this trip has helped remind me that the people I struggle to understand probably have just as much trouble understanding ME.

 

In the middle of a long day crossing Montana on I-90, we stopped at the Missouri Headlands State Park.  It is, as the name implies, the beginning of that body of moving water we call the Missouri. It’s a good place: Lewis and Clark’s party camped there for three days.

Not a bad camp spot.

Lewis and Clark were sent by Jefferson to stitch our country together, west to east, by waterways. They failed, of course–Mighty Mo don’t cross no Rockies!–but the land routes they found served the same purpose in time. And of course, as American culture spread across the continent, other cultures were soon shattered.

“This rest area is your rest area, this rest area is my rest area…” See you there, America.

The lesson here? “This land is your land, this land is my land.” We may not agree on much. But in asserting my love for this big ol’ country, I’m not going to whine about it having become “unrecognizable” to me, as some on the left like to do. I DO recognize American culture, warts and all. And some of those warts are mine.

 

 

The Importance of Names

I’m an old folkie from my deepest roots. I was raised on Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers, and Joan Baez. I consider Pete Seeger to be an honorary uncle. (Also Walter Cronkite, for what it’s worth–any Walter fans out there? “And that’s the way it is…” still chokes me up.)

So I can’t remember how long I’ve known the Woody Guthrie song that goes by the name, “Deportee.” It’s actually titled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” but no one calls it that. Probably because of the haunting chorus, which goes like this:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita

Adios, mis amigos Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane

All they will call you will be deportee.

Woody wrote the song after a 1948 plane crash in California, which killed 28 people. The passengers were all Mexican nationals being returned to Mexico. The crew were Americans. News accounts of the time named the dead crew members, but referred to the remaining men, women and children only as “deportees.”

But that’s all I knew about the story behind the song. No, I’m lying–I knew even less. I didn’t know the date of the crash, or the number of people who died, or even that the Los Gatos in the song isn’t the suburb near San Jose, but a desolate area in the Fresno County hills.

Then a music pal of mine, visiting LA, sent me this article from the front page of the LA Times, which not only filled in all the missing information I never knew about the crash and Woody Guthrie’s reaction to it, but the really important part: the NAMES of those poor people, lost to anonymity for 65 years.  

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-deportees-guthrie-20130710-dto,0,2642231.htmlstory

I really hope you click on this link and read the article; it will probably move you to tears as it moved me. But in case you’re in a hurry, I’ll cut to the chase. A descendant of some of the men killed, and a writer, both searching independently for records that would confirm exactly who was on that plane, found each other, and together they found that information. This September, those folks will be honored with a ceremony and a plaque dedicated to their memory…a memory that had been all but wiped out for 65 years.

Why does this matter? The families of those poor folks whose plane, witnesses said, exploded in mid-air, have long since known they were gone. They won’t get them back; they won’t get money, or even an apology from any authority figure.

But their loved ones can now be remembered as PEOPLE, not as a vague, pathetic lump. The naming of names is an honor in any human culture I can think of. The removal of names is a dehumanization. Think of any event in history where people’s names were converted to numbers, or to tribal groups. The removal of names makes people into the “other.” When that happens, empathy dies, human connection is broken, and all bets are off.

I, for one, am proud of, and thankful for, the people in this article who tracked down the names of those lost and brought them back to life. Now, whenever I sing Woody’s haunting song, I will remember that some kind of miniature resurrection occurred, and feel a little less haunted.

And, speaking of that song, here it is, as sung (many years ago) by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris:

What about you? When you think of the importance of names, what comes to mind? What other thoughts did this article or this song bring out in you? Please share!