I don’t want to sit on my Brooklyn stoop this 9/11 and weep. We have mourned for these lost souls for 18 years. They are etched in our hearts and memories. I want to move on. I want to reclaim this beautiful land we call home. The very bonds that threaded us together on that dreadful long-ago morn – our unity – feels as imperiled and fragile as gossamer. What made us strong has become our weakest thread.
A couple of weeks ago I flew out to Bozeman, Montana, rented a car and aimed north. Armed with a Rand McNally atlas as my GPS of choice, I set off on a week-long walkabout. My goal? To see what truths were driving us apart. My only preordained rule? Stay off the interstate. I am at one with the coasts. I wanted to take the temperature in the middle and see what was going on.
First lesson? Turn off the TV and the radio. The indignant and often inflammatory blather is poisonous and prejudicial. It is an exercise in wonder to hear how far apart two sides can be. I assume it sells lots of ads, but it reflected nothing that I experienced from the people I met along the way. I filled my empty car on the long days and nights with the sounds of minor league baseball and country music. Aural bliss.
The journey was not all endless vistas and obsessive thoughts. Meet Loman Goetz from Dunn Center, North Dakota. Loman sells antiques and chochtkes out of a small house in a small dot of a town 100 miles from anywhere – and by anywhere I mean Bismark or Williston. There is 0.0% chance you will pop in by accident. I did.
We talked about kids. And college. And how far a twenty-dollar bill goes these days (not very, we agreed). Without speaking a syllable of politics we knowingly bemoaned the state of our nation. I bought a 1950s glass juicer and a Hamm beer church key. Loman was shy and gracious to pose for a picture. I got change from my twenty.
The miles fly by like so many frost bumps on the rutted blacktop. The lone man in the lead photo above was dragging his pointed message on a road where I had not seen another car for 15 miles. The image stayed with me from Wolf Point to Minot. I find myself wondering where he is today.
I hunkered down for the night one late afternoon in Miles City, Montana. In late August in America so many of us jet off to savor the charms of Europe. That has been me plenty of times. And yet how can I ponder the state our our nation if I don’t get some dirt on my Keds?
The joy of the Eastern Montana County Fair and Rodeo hits you like a Bruce Springsteen ballad, only the tastes and smells and sounds are as real as rain. The rodeo opened with a benediction and thanks to all those who keep America safe. The patriotism was as thick as corral dust and yet not a word of politics was uttered. I could not have felt prouder to place my hand over my heart as I sang the Star Spangled Banner.
The roads I drove were so remote if I stopped to snap a picture, inevitably, if anyone passed, they slowed, rolled down their window and asked if I was okay. One night I ran late into the darkness, so tired that I drove with the windows open to stay awake. The radio reception was for shit and I thought I was starting to hallucinate when I saw lights kicking up a cloud in the distance. The sight of these awesome machines harvesting at midnight was like some strange kind of choreographed mechanical bullfight. I watched transfixed before I rolled on, the image staying in my rearview for nearly 20 minutes.
Are we really them versus us? I did not hear an unkind word for five straight days. Roll into a cafe at the most desolate intersection you can find and they serve their grilled cheese with American, same as any good diner in New York. The county fair is the county fair, whether you’re buttering your popcorn in Syracuse or the eastern Montana plain.
I felt sadness and hope as my plane swung a large lazy loop and banked east towards home. Paul Simon’s lyrics from the iconic song AMERICA rang in my head. “Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike–”
So much was lost on that crystal clear morning 18 years ago on September 11th. When I look up at the twin beams tonight, I’ll think of my headlights cutting across a moonless Montana blacktop. They were all I had to illuminate the way. Isn’t it time we opened our eyes and started to find a road forward, too? Aren’t we all, honestly, just looking for America?
Ken Carlton has been exploring the back roads of all 50 states since his mother inexplicably loaned him and his best friend her car in the summer of 11th grade. You can follow him on Instagram @mrswagnerspies