Six thousand miles through and around fires, hurricanes, political conventions and seven shots in the back. Red states and red parts of blue states in a Mini Cooper with a “Make America Kind Again” bumper sticker. I drove and pumped gas next to several thousand pick-up trucks through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia. I was taken by what did not happen and what I did not learn.
You’d think somebody somewhere would have at least muttered something. I never saw two hands on the wheel, so there was plenty of opportunity for gestures. I’d be an easy target and, well, sort of deserved it, what with my bumper sticker. Nothing. Not a peep or cross-eyed glance. I saw a couple dozen Trump/Pence signs—about one every 200 miles and maybe 6 for my guy. Hundreds of signs for citizens running for Sheriff and county commission. A few for Senate hopefuls who had lost in the primaries. More COVID signs than all of these combined.
People are sick of political sugar and spit. Maybe ready to stop shouting, go vote, do what we need to do to beat the virus, teach our kids and go back to work.
When I was planning the trip, I had, well, overlooked the nearly thousand miles of Utah and Nevada. To dodge the fires I ended up crossing their former ocean basin on US 50, the “loneliest highway in america.” From 37,000 feet in years past I had liked to pick out the Grand Canyon and been curious about the the tiny bright green dimes surrounded by brown rock to its north. Through my windshield I could now see that the pivot irrigation machines making green hay as well as rainbows in the morning light. But I would have to stop to learn anything about the people who tend them, what they hope or fear, where their kids are and how many cows the hay will feed. Driving back on I-80 I found myself following the California Trail which one wind-blown Nevada rest area explained was a walking path for thousands. Why would someone would walk Nevada with their kids? What were they leaving or seeking? How could I say anything about Nevada until I walk, too?
US 50 road goes through through St. Louis and across the Mississippi, though no longer a lonely road. I had forgotten Illinois and the beautiful rolling forests gifted by glaciers on both sides of the Ohio. I jotted down the names dozens of museums I hope to stop at someday, constant reminders of the thousands of miles of things I did not know.
I did learn a lot about smoke. The brown acrid smoke of the Haight in San Francisco persisted in clouds, high haze and columns of fire till east of Denver. A continental-sized phenomenon that literally took my breath away. Not a thousand mile wall of flame, but the drifting smoke is clarifying things in the minds of people you might not expect. YHWH promised Noah no more floods; he didn’t swear off smoke.
On the high plains Sequoia-sized turbines are spinning by the thousands with hundreds more under construction. In the Kansas night they blink in unison from one horizon to the other, blades nearly touching. Only nimble birds make it to Canada and back and those only if they avoid looking into the glare of the solar arrays. Don’t buy oil stock. And don’t let them drill the arctic for oil we won’t need.
Among the things I know I don’t know is how to live our human lives when our machines are so powerful. My Mini gets 47 miles to the gallon, but still sucking my grandsons’ future from their air. Greta is right: we’re not trying hard enough. Get out of the planes and not because of the virus.
School was pretending to open as I drove. I watched my way-too-smart grandson try to pay attention to a screen on a wall, picking out the teacher’s voice amid a cacophony of chattering kids. It’s easy to say the kids aren’t learning much. I’m sure the adults are no better picking out the lessons from noise. Our kids watch as we pretend to notice the screams of our burning planet.
We’ll have lost about a quarter million Americans by Election Day. And a few more cubic miles of Greenland ice. And a few million acres of trees, including bristle cone and sequoia that finally met people too dumb to survive.
“Go back to your screens and don’t bother us,” our kids see us say. They notice. COVID invites some adult behavior.
Saturday morning after I got back a handful of citizens met at our garage door over a precinct map and box of election door hangers. Some of us headed to the apartments near the highway, another and his two grandsons headed to Washington Park. It went quick without the door knocking and conversations. We had instructions to only poke the Democrats awake, but we think everyone is paying enough attention to remind them to act like citizens. It is possible that all the wheels will fall off our cultural wagon; that we are too late with too little wisdom to make the choices that give life a chance. But maybe cultures and democracies, like ecosystems, rebound when the grown-ups show a tiny bit of respect for each other and their place.
Another thing I did not see in 6,000 miles of American pavement: “Jesus is coming back; prepare to meet your doom.” But maybe Jesus is already back, teaching us steps one and two of Shalom: Don’t shout at people you don’t know. And don’t give up on the world that God so loves.