It’s January 11, 2020, and it’s been raining all morning here in East Nashville. Earlier, immense winds swept across the neighborhood, and from the window of our little apartment above an alley garage, I watched it mat and swirl this 15 foot stand of bamboo spraying up from the owner’s yard. The bamboo’s resistance gave the wind a three-dimensional feel, more of a solid chimerical entity than a broad force―more animal than weather. The thunder, too, has been 3-D, roiling in various distances on the full perimeter of our lofted space, making shapes or signs or signatures in my mind as I’ve lounged into the afternoon, staring out of the window and into the air that itself has the quality of mud, the bare winter hardwoods blurred scrawls ornamented here and there with the brilliant, rain-soaked, red-feathered cardinals that these past few days have been flitting at every periphery.
This is the beginning of a year-long trip my wife and I are taking across America. Or anyway, it feels like the beginning, even though we’ve already been through ten states, driving from Seattle on I-90 across the Cascades, northern Rockies, and the high plateaus, plains, and rolling forests between the West Coast and Chicago, where we spent Christmas and New Year visiting friends and family. We’ve also stayed with folks in Minneapolis, Lafayette, Indiana, and Louisville, and have been in Nashville now for half a week or so. Last night we went to the Grand Ol’ Opry, which returns to its original home in the Ryman auditorium downtown every January and February. Being here in Nashville, it’s hard not to think a lot about country music, and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve connected with the full set of its tenets―its commercialism and professional pop ethos, its rootedness, its poetry, its simplicity, the melodramatic ballads and jumping honkytonks, the taste of cheap beer in the lights and electricity of a good times band. And especially, its nostalgia, which it has cultivated ever since its birth, this feeling that what you want is always just beneath your feet, if you could just figure out how to bend down and touch it.
I have to be as honest as I can: nostalgia has been a dangerous force in America; it’s been violent, racist, and xenophobic, and it has been strategically deployed to garner power for the powerful. I feel it is a major element of what strangles us now, in the form of nationalism, in the fear of others and of porous boundaries, in our inability to conceive of a harmoniously global community. It is a version of uncanny unease, the unheimlich, never totally feeling at-home, or feeling that home has been taken from you (or soon will be). It’s something, with this trip and with this writing (whatever shape it ends up taking), that I am trying to look directly into, for myself, as it might exist in myself, how it shapes my desires and imagination, my frustrations, my depression. Now I am in no way a conservative, and I do not dream of a bygone era in this country, so when I connect whatever nostalgia lurks in me with the nostalgia I associate with conservative America, I mean to do it as an exercise, the most earnest exercise I can employ, to root out my own concept of rootedness at the very time I’ve embraced full mobility, and of course, to try to understand the America I am setting out with my partner to see.
So maybe thinking about a song like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (at the Opry last night, they did the Carter/Cash version, making a bit of a comedy routine, stopping the song at “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor” to pit the registers against each other, to see who could go further into their respective range, who could go lower, or higher, each striving for an ever more distant octave) is a useful starting place to think about America now, and for us, our trip, and what we are seeking to understand. People have been asking us if we are looking for a new home, if we are trying to figure out where we want to land. In a way, we’ve wanted to say yes, but we’ve been hesitant to; it’s not that it’s the wrong question, per se, but more like it isn’t formulated correctly, like it’s in a language we don’t yet know how to speak. I’ve always had a slight cynicism about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is, of course, one of the most important songs in country music history (and a song I have, despite this cynicism, deeply loved). It’s always struck me as ambiguous, as a question, maybe even an interrogation. Is the circle a perimeter or a unity? Is it a form of protection, or one of connection? Is it the gated kingdom for the chosen, or the path by which we are all returned to each other? By and by, lord, by and by, we chorus―there’s a better home a waitin’. Is there?
Here is our plan so far. We are a week in Nashville and then a few days in Memphis. Then we go to visit with my wife’s parents in Naples, Florida, where we will also do a roughly five-day paddle of the Everglades. After Florida we will travel west to New Orleans, where will stay for all of February (that’s all of Carnival and Mardi Gras), enjoying visits from numerous groups of friends. In March, we head farther West, with vague plans to stay in Austin and Houston, firmer plans to backpack in Big Bend National Park, and definite plans (i.e. we already have permits) to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim. In April, we rest again, this time in Los Angeles, for another month. May first is our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we will spend it in Big Sur. Then north to the Bay Area to visit friends, then back south to Sequoia, than east across the crest and into the desert, Las Vegas, then hopefully picking up a friend to backpack Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, eventually making our way to Colorado by Memorial Day when we hope to see more friends and stay the early season in the mountains. We have tickets for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid-June and plan to do many hikes and backpacks as summer settles in, flying back to Louisville for a family reunion over the Fourth of July. Then back to the Rockies, where, if snowpack allows, we will do a late-July traverse of the Wind River High Route, before heading, likely, to Oregon to celebrate my wife’s fortieth birthday. Then, mid-August, we fly to Alaska, where I hope to complete a three-week trip hiking from Wonder Lake to the park entrance of Denali National Park, my wife and perhaps some friends joining me at various points (my wife will also explore other parts of Alaska). After that, things get especially vague, but our general hope is to make it to the East Coast for the fall, to visit with numerous people there.
We think it’s a good itinerary, more shored up, naturally, in its earlier parts, with various nodes cast out into the calendar to help anchor our plans and give us a general sense of direction. We’ve been telling people we are hiking and dancing all year, and I’ve enjoyed the celebratory nature of that description. It is a big celebration, but I hope it will also be disciplining, that it will show us better what we need and don’t, how to be with people and alone, how to listen, talk, move, solve problems, and leave no trace. We are doing it all in our car―not a camper or van―and I’ve been joking that we are going ultralight, and that is indeed an earnest set of values I want to cultivate on the trip. We have it all meticulously budgeted. We will try to cook the best food we can for ourselves, eat only in restaurants we really want to eat in, be outside as much as possible, interact with as many people as are willing, exercise, read, take photos, notes, make lists, play games, and constantly check in with each other. Or anyway that’s the idea.
It’s a strange and challenging time for a lot of people. I hear it in their voices, and of course I see it prominently in every form of media, from raging social media posts to the endless furies of cable news to the weird social fantasies of popular shows, the post-apocalypses and other visions of different societies. This year is going to be hard for America, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we are trying to escape it a little bit. But I also hope we will get beneath it. One of the words that constantly comes up in my mind is “estrangement,” and I think that’s what we are trying to overcome, to connect with real people and real land, and to foster the good.
Right now, my wife is sweeping the floor of our loft while talking to her sister on the phone; a dal is simmering on the stove (our plan is to dehydrate it for the Everglades), and the smell is starting to fill the room. Outside, the rain has stopped and the air is glowing more warmly in the emerging light. The mud seems to have flattened, lying low now in the yards and alleyway, glistening slightly. This is as good a threshold as any; will the circle be unbroken.
―Nashville, TN, Saturday, January 11, 2020.