It’s been hard to talk about coming home. We never made a big announcement or called people up. We did it quietly and without much fanfare, telling only those who asked. We had too many feelings about it. We knew deep down that it was the right thing to do but felt anxious about stopping early- a little guilty even, as if it meant we’d given up.
The truth is that after election day in Washington, D.C., after the tears, frustration and disbelief ebbed- we took a look at the sea of red states we had planned to drive through en route home to Minnesota and asked ourselves, how can we continue? With numb hearts, it was impossible to imagine going through the motions of this trip.
The election knocked the wind out of us. The America that had felt exciting and beautiful in January now felt like a dystopian nightmare. Our instinct was to abandon the trip immediately. Intellectually, we knew this impulse was a weak one- the exclusively red states that we had left to visit were still full of beauty, originality, and many progressive people. But this reality couldn’t overcome the fact that our hearts felt like they’d been pushed through a meat grinder. This was made worse by the fact that we only had one another for support. There is only so much you can say to your significant other with whom you’ve shared nearly every moment for the past 11 months; your hopes, fears and helplessness are all the same. To have someone who understands you so completely is invaluable, but that person cannot offer much comfort or new ideas for moving forward.
In hindsight, everything before election day feels like “the time before”- a time when we could be silly, free and curious about America and its quirks. That isn’t to say we didn’t care about social justice and democracy (trust us, these values are VERY important to us both)- but despite the ugliness of the 2016 election cycle, we were hopeful that truth and justice would win out. We paid attention to the news. We looked to our cultural role models and listened closely to what they had to say. We were determined to vote FOR Hilary Clinton and against Donald Trump- to us, this choice was a simple one.
People have inevitably asked if we saw Tump’s win coming. After all, we have been all over the US in 2016 and have seen multitudes. The short answer? No, we didn’t see it coming. Of course, we were in Trump country for a statistic majority of the year. We drove through fields full of Trump signs and contended with plenty of Trump sweatshirts and hats. We don’t have picture evidence of this, however, since every time we encountered these things we felt our stomachs turn and tried to steer away from it (sorry, friends, but we’re just not the confrontational types- Midwesterners through and through.)
To state the obvious, we are benign white people who can navigate the world with ease. We are so privileged that we can choose to live a homeless, nomadic lifestyle without raising many eyebrows from the mainstream. If people have racist, homophobic or xenophobic tendencies, we are never on the receiving end of these attitudes- we are safe, and as such we have been met solely with kindness and trust from just about everyone we’ve met on the road. This makes us uniquely unqualified to speak to the realities of these communities and harmful opinions.
We went on this trip because we love America. That isn’t to say our love is without hesitation or some rather complicated feelings- but this country has been good to us. And I mean really good. We grew up in the dreamy spell of the 1990’s, which afforded us ideas of freedom, prosperity and optimistic promise. To be a child in the 90’s was to be a beneficiary of baby boomer prosperity, 2nd and 3rd wave feminism and mass globalization. We were told “the sky’s the limit” to what we could achieve, and we believed it.
We have thought long and hard about the benefits and drawbacks to gestating in this kind of idealistic petri dish. On the one hand, we were imbued with a sense of optimism and self-worth from birth. On the other hand, we lacked perspective on the toll this wealth had on the rest of the world (both socially and environmentally), and felt an erasure of the truths of those people lower on the socioeconomic totem pole, who are often caught in cycles of institutional poverty and racism. That opportunity is often only available to certain groups further complicates our ideas of self and possibility.
America is a beautiful idea, but one that is as problematic as it is positive. Our position of privilege in this system is therefore both a blessing and a curse. We aren’t foolish enough to think that it is equally so- we know our privilege is a massive, inequitable and undeserved byproduct of the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (bell hooks where you at?!). But despite all of the issues in this country, it seems that we as a people are often willing to confront bias and inequity. At the very least, we are slowly progressing. So, in the end, we have more love for this country than not. This melting pot of immigrants, a place where hope and opportunity at best align, a country built on democracy and democratic ideals- this is a place we can’t help but embrace. We’ll be the first to recognize the irony of our patriotism (since the conservative far-right has been coopting patriotism for the past two decades to their own undemocratic ends)- but here we are, waving a tiny American Flag in the name of liberty and justice for all. This country is for everyone. That is the price of freedom.
But after November 8, we are no longer sure that this country is worth loving. This is, to us, the most heartbreaking thing about the election- it appears that progress is being reversed, ugliness, hatred and falsehood championed. There are plenty of worthy thinkpieces going around about why we shouldn’t despair, why many in this country are moving in the right direction, that all is not lost, that there are actions we can take to make a difference- we hope that they’re right. But it’s hard to stay optimistic in the face of so much horror and defeat. We fear for the people of the US that are far more vulnerable than we are.
You want to know something? It DID help to end our travels and come home early. We knew we had to see the trip through to completion, so we sped up- way, way up- a day in West Virginia, a few in Kentucky, two in Indiana- those remaining seven states got woefully fewer than seven days apiece. It was all we could do to try and find things of value in spite of feeling so deeply sad. We rolled through a country touched by a warm late autumn- leafless trees and dry grasses. We skipped getting off the highway to see the bronze star marking James Dean’s birthplace- something we’d have done under different circumstances. We visited family in Indiana and Michigan and were reminded once more how good it can be to be surrounded by love. And then we were home, thankfully, finally, home.
We can’t pretend that living in our parents basement with all of our worldly possessions and a mess of a life is cooler than driving cross-country with a travel trailer. But we don’t question that coming home when we did was the right thing to do. We feel it in our bones- that home, family and friends are what we need so badly right now. The states that got shorted deserve more attention than they got- so maybe, someday, we’ll just have to do a mini trip and give them their due. We still want to see James Dean’s birthplace.
P.S.- Hey, we’re not finished! There is lots more content to come on the blog and elsewhere. We are only up to the state of Montana, which means, OOPS- we have plenty to catch up on. We have so much more to say about what we saw and did this year. We are also working on editing video now that we are home for good. Stay tuned for much more!
P.P.S: Here are some highly-recommended resources for stories and journalism that helped us understand some of the complexities of modern America this year:
Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me
Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast
More Perfect podcast (a Radiolab spin-off focusing on the Supreme Court)
Presidential podcast (a Washington Post podcast all about our nation’s presidents)
George Saunders’ piece in the New Yorker about attending Trump Rallies