We stopped for a brief visit in Britt, Iowa today. Maya found The Hobo Museum on her Roadside America app and, feeling a bit like hobos* these days, we decided we had to see if it was open. It wasn’t, but we snapped a photo and then stopped at the town Farmers Market - two folding tables on the shady sidewalk across from the post office - where we bought a pint of tomatoes, a small loaf of homemade zucchini bread, and a watermelon the man promised me would be “sweet as sugar.”
The thing about our penchant for staying off the highways and taking these detours into small towns is that we believe they reveal something fundamental about the United States. Our foundation is cumbersome and violent, for sure. We were somberly reminded of that on Monday at Wounded Knee. But riding in tandem with that deep wound is a pioneering spirit and a belief that there is a place for everyone somewhere in this vast country.
You collect elephants or clowns? Welcome! You love 50s music or UFOs or Pez or underwater ballet? Welcome! Your ancestors were from Holstein, Germany? Willkommen, Freund! You are from London, Istanbul, Tehran, Guadalajara, Nairobi, or Trujillo? Welcome! There is a place for you.
I still (desperately want to) believe that this is true. Despite the current leader in the White House, our broken system, or the streak of ugly nationalism that is rearing its dangerous head, I see hope in these small towns. I see a belief in being a safe harbor for weary travelers. I see a desire to have folks visit, stay for a while, put down roots, open a small business. We have seen dwindling towns getting creative about how to draw people from the highways onto the slow roads once again.
I still see the potential for a different kind of United States, where the emphasis is truly on united. I see the potential to be a nation where we share our strange collections and we parade around in the clothes (and bodies!) that fit each of us best, and where everyone can let their hobo spirit soar.
Welcome! Welcome! We are so happy you are here.
* According to the Wikipedia entry for the Hobo Museum, It's very important to define between hobos, tramps and bums as the hobos are sensitive to the titles. Hobos are workers who travel to find work. Many are skilled craftsmen/women. They are workers.
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I owe my love of back roads to the cross-country move my parents embarked us on when I was 8 years old. We spent three weeks driving across the dozens of states between Virginia (where we’d been living) to California, where my father had been accepted into graduate school. My brother, who had just been born a year before, had full reign of the back row of the maroon Ford van my parents had purchased to make this journey. The seat had been lifted out and Adam’s crib nestled in. In the middle section, my sister and I shared real estate with our great-grandmother, who for some reason had agreed to accompany us. Perhaps it’s because her youngest grandchild, my uncle Rick, was getting married in British Columbia, and she didn’t want to make the much faster trip via airplane. So part of the route included a significant detour to Vancouver, where my sister & I played starring roles as bridesmaids, with matching baby-blue lacy dresses and new silver bracelets gifted to us by our soon-to-be aunt.
But I digress. Where was I? Ah, back roads. For three weeks, the troupe of travelers that was my family headed west out of Virginia and explored America without - if memory serves - driving on a single interstate. What I remember is looking out the windows for hours and hours, getting happily lost in the slowly changing topography around us. What I remember is the joy of crossing state lines and stopping in souvenir shops to buy commemorative silver spoons (I still have the one from Wyoming), and staying in roadside motels with kitchenettes and eating cheese sandwiches in rest stops. What I remember is the sound of rivers at night, and the stars spread above us like a blanket, and how excited my sister and I were to use the motel soaps and shampoos, and how sometimes, if we were lucky, there was a complimentary shower cap or sewing kit or sachet of cotton balls on the bathroom counter that we’d stash in our knapsacks as keepsakes.
What I love now about back roads isn’t too far afield from what I loved about them then. The feeling they gave me of intimacy with a place. Of an up-close-and-personal experience that the highways couldn’t touch. The delight they offered as they segued into the opening streets of a small town. The possibility of wildlife at their edges, their proximity to the natural world altogether. How they always felt like secret passageways, portals to another time. These past few days, driving through Wyoming and Nebraska and Iowa, the back roads have brought an invigorating realness to our explorations. Away from the pomp of tourist attractions and the commercial monotony of box stores and chain restaurants and the grandeur of more frequented locations, the back roads offer the sense of transportation that isn’t merely literal, but metaphorical. The drives on these roads are often filled with long stretches of silent contemplation, Amy & I both navigating the nooks and crannies of our thoughts. Somehow, these roads - and the places they deliver us to - give us an opportunity to metabolize our experiences without the frenetic jostle of the interstates. There’s a serenity in this geography that’s not merely due to the slower speed limits it requires of us. This afternoon, it was a series of back roads that took us to a diner lunch, a fiberglass statue of Pocahontas, a farmer’s market consisting of an elderly couple selling a clutch of vegetables and homemade zucchini bread. But more than anything, those roads took us in, to a place of such sweet peace, I could almost taste it.
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