“This is how you get murdered,” I said to myself while executing a twelve-point turn in the backwoods of Arkansas at approximately midnight. A long series of county roads, numbered, not named, led me up and then down the Ozark hills for the better part of an hour until I arrived at the last house on the block, to say the least.
Full disclosure: I was searching for one of the many, many entrances to the Ozark National Forest in Northwest Arkansas. Alas, I should have been paying better attention.
All things being connected, intertwined, I find no reason as to why I can’t blame the predicament in which I found myself in Dallas, Texas.
When it’s 97 degrees outside, and you’re stuck in a one-man operation to deliver a recreational vehicle to Chicago in three days, you may or may not start slamming your palms against the steering wheel in a fit of fury when Google Maps takes you up I-35 from Austin to Dallas to get you to Arkansas. Stay with me.
You must approach I-35 like the DMV: any slight miscalculation as to when, exactly, you approach your first on-ramp, multiplied by how far you’re driving, added to the sum total of how productive you were trying to be that day equals cost in hours (time), gas (money), and stress (life force), and in my case, sweat.
The lack of AC had me on edge already; Google Maps took care of the rest. You see the red line on your phone, recalculating, still the fastest route, you see the brake-happy driver in front of you tapping out a message in Morse code that surely means, “PARKING LOT STOP WE’RE ALL FUCKED STOP.” You see these things, you know they are there, but you do nothing.
Standstill. Despair. Did I mention I don’t drive?
I mean I do drive, I have a valid license, but I don’t have a car, so in the grand scheme of things, I don’t drive all that often. After six years of not driving a car and riding your bicycle everywhere, what seems normal to most people, starts to seem insane to you.
The fridge is working! (I’ll explain later).
Anyways, “Normal people do this,” was my mantra when I hit a slow down about 30 minutes south of Dallas. This being, of course, deal with traffic. Normal people do this all the time. Oakland to SF, late night: 18 minutes. Oakland to SF, 8am or 4:45pm: two hours go fuck yourself and your idiotic commute.
What started off as a mantra, however, took on a violent tone after about 15 minutes. 15, then 30, and right around the 45 minute mark was when I started slamming my palms on the steering wheel, in a white, 19 foot long RV with light blue, almost aqua trim, and the word Jamboree in some font reminiscent of a Desert Storm military operation, which, thinking back, is just about perfect considering that five pounds worth of water had dripped from my head and back down the crack of my ass into the plush, luxuriously-cushioned-microwaved-potato-oh-my-god-I’m-on-fire seat.
To add insult to injury, under Jamboree, in a neat little script that would make you think somebody was writing on a schoolroom chalkboard/whiteboard (depending on your age), they wrote, Searcher.
So, on a small dirt road, at the bottom of a tall, Grimm fairy tale hill, in front of the only house I’d seen for the better part of an hour, with six seemingly, mostly, operational vehicles tucked in between the trees, a singular, dim yellow light shining above the door, and yours truly, high-beams in full force, on day one of a 60 day journey, was trying to execute a turn of the ages in between scraggly old trees and giant rocks and an ’86 Firebird and a 90’s Jeep Cherokee, with Ludacris on the CD Player, in a vehicle that says Jamboree Searcher, about to get murdered.
That it doesn’t have a fucking exclamation point after Searcher, I will never know.
“But, Ph-ill, when are we gonna to get to the campaign stuff?” Settle down, eager reader, we’re telling a story. In due time. In due time.
As irrational as it may seem, the outskirts of Dallas was the point at which I decided to unplug my navigational system (aka, a $30 Best Buy cell phone). Little did I know, you actually have to exit the app, or it, along with 30 other battery draining apps, will suck the life out of your phone as if it were a fair, Victorian maiden.
I blame it on Dallas, but, I acquiesce, it could also have to do with my innate, technological incompetence. Maybe the ’91 Jamboree will suit us just fine, after all.
After all, I know how to get from Texas to Arkansas: North and then right. But somewhere in the middle of that right, I seemed to have gone wrong.
There are a handful of reasonable options at your fingertips when driving from Texas to Chicago, and most of these involve driving 80mph on large, five and six-lane interstate highways. But nothing drives you to seek old US highways quicker than a Jamboree, I’ll tell you that much. It has something to do with the lack of traffic, for one. Probably more to do with the notion that 80mph in a ’91 Jamboree is a pipedream. And, even more to do with the fact, yes the stone cold fact, that at 65mph she purrs like a kitten. When faced with choices like these, you make the levelheaded decision of instantly tossing your GPS over your right-hand shoulder, settling for those old roads that are cut through hills and blasted through rock, and giving instinct a go – for old time’s sake.
Full disclosure: Instinct is my enemy.
But Dallas, oh Dallas, that particular, vapid suck hole of vanity and excess, “But it’s got culture and art!” Fuck you, nobody cares. Dallas is a fake breast on an otherwise flat chested north Texas. Dallas reminded me why I hate driving. Dallas made me realize that I needed an old road, with a speed limit younger than Willie Nelson, and a good old-fashioned Atlas of The United States.
Full disclosure: I am a mediocre map-reader.
So why oh why did I end up at the bottom of hill in the black of night in a dream sequence from something out of Wes Craven’s Shocker, because I have a certain affinity for Northwest Arkansas. It’s as simple as that. When I’m crossing The States, North-South, East-West, I’m trying to get me a little bit of Ozark.
Ozarks: Come for the hills, get murdered for the incompetence.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are certain parts of this country, certain states, certain drives, that if you tell me you’re flying over, I’m going to look you straight in the eye like you’re a fucking weirdo.
Even if you don’t agree with me, because you find the destination more entertaining than the journey, or you think they’re the same thing and blah blah blah, I like what I like, and when I have the opportunity to pass through the Ozarks, in a Goddamn Jamboree Searcher, I’m taking it.
OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD
In no particular order.
Vacant Supreme Court seats / Endless war / Gerrymandering / Black lives matter / Militarization of police / Failed war on drugs / Guantanamo / Housing market doomed to repeat 2008? / Infrastructure / Social-Economic-Class Mobility / Institutionalized Racism / Big pharma / Women’s Rights / Predatory lending / Equal pay / Military industrial complex / Booming prison population / Public education system / Gun violence / Lobbying / Citizens United / Taxes / Flint Water Crisis / The 1% vs. the 99% / Environment / Deregulation / Outsourcing of defense contracts / Data mining / Persecution of whistleblowers / Orwell vs. Huxley / Incompetence / Corruption / Apathy / Distraction / Jingoism / Entertainment vs. Information /
THE POWER OF TEN
I’m reminded of this cheesy-yet-eye-opening video I watched in fourth or fifth grade where there’s somebody lying in the grass, and the camera pulls back ten centimeters, and then a meter, and then ten meters, and then math and more math, and you end up on the outskirts of our galaxy staring in at the milky way, and, eventually, we see a cluster of galaxies, and the observable universe. And once we’ve reached the outskirts of what we know as the observable universe the camera zooms forward in ludicrous speed back towards the person in the grass and travels through various microscopic levels by a power of ten, until we, the captivated audience by this point, are confronted by a subatomic particle or something of that nature.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
I like to think that I have faith in humanity. Or, at least, I feel like I do on an individual, case-by case level. But as we pull away from the individual, to, let’s say, their family, and then the neighborhood, and then the community, and then a town or city, and then the aspects of the town or city that make up local governments, wards, regions, districts, statehouses, further and further out until we’ve reached not only the entirety of our federal government but also a large majority of other countries and governments and people, until we’re standing on the surface of our moon staring back at the earth, I feel nothing but jaded and cynical.
And this thought depresses me, in a sense, or rather, as much as it can.
FAITH IN THE SYSTEM
The idea started a while back. Move away from the noise machine. Resist, at first, the temptation, and then, eventually, the urge to consume any and all television news. I already do not watch TV, so this proved to be easier than I thought. Ignore and, when necessary, walk away. The idea was to keep the perspective fresh.
In 2008, I remember watching TV news incessantly. I was hooked. Each evening was four to six hours of FOX, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and even Glenn Beck when he was on HLN. I read online papers and political blogs for hours. I felt connected to the election back then, consuming all that media and opinion – and when you could get it, information – felt like the only way to truly pay attention.
That feeling is no longer prevalent.
Aside from raising my blood pressure to pre-hypertensive levels, consuming that much news-info-entertainment-opinion bogged me down. I could no longer tell then difference between what mattered and what did not. An offhand remark by a candidate or campaign staffer captured on camera bled into my nightly news sources, discussed ad-nauseum, littered with opinion and vitriol, and presented by almost all networks in a way that said, “This is the only story that matters right now.”
So over the course of the past year, I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of noise surrounding me. Newspapers mainly. I’ve found the Sunday editions to be the most calming forms of information. Everything seems a bit more levelheaded on Sunday. When the week’s highs and lows, missteps and mistakes have been adjusted for hindsight, and opinions and editorials, take into account any new developments.
After a year without, when I think about the 24-hour news cycle nowadays it fills me with anxiety and dread.
The most noticeable thing being, of course, how these narratives presented by television networks and talking heads still permeate through. There is, almost, no escaping it. In the past few months, the only solace I’ve found from the far-reaching tentacles of the noise machine had been during two weeks of backpacking up the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Quite simply, every three and a half years, you can avoid but you cannot actually escape it.
Since the first of the republican debates, I remember being astonished at the speed with which an issue was presented, discussed thoroughly until exhaustion, and then completely forgotten. As a country, our attention spans have become so short that we’ve lost the ability to filter out the noise – at least this is what it looks like from the outside.
And this is where we begin.
THE BIG GAMBLE
From the beginning, it appears that the Trump campaign has banked on the idea that the traditional model of campaigning was dead – entertainment over policy. So while the Clinton campaign has built it’s base support through more conventional channels, and worked it’s way through a long primary, Mr. Trump enjoyed the spoils won by his strategy: these days, you can count on the American public to move on to the next story.
I have my doubts about whether or not this approach will pay off in the end. As of today, September 19th at 11:00am, FiveThirtyEight has Mrs. Clinton with a 19% edge to win.
But it feels worth noting, again and again, that as a nation our inability to discern the difference between news and entertainment, between what matters and what does not, and to actually take action and do something about it – gather, protest, rally, riot, vote – before we become collectively outraged by the next “big thing,” is at an all time low.
WHO DECIDES WHAT’S IMPORTANT?
The answer seems to be that we do.
That the candidates, media organizations, and the general public are not focusing on the Pentagon’s $6.5 trillion accounting error is one of the more depressing aspects of current affairs. It borders on insane. On September 12th, 2001 Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article for ESPN in which he said, “Make no mistake about it: We are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.” That war continues, the checkbook is unlimited, and the thieves spending the money can’t even account for how it’s spent.
But I heard about San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the better part of two weeks. People were outraged! Outraged I tell you. Others stood with him. Opinions were shouted out from every platform of social media imaginable. I wonder how many hours our nation wasted, collectively, discussing and dissecting his decision to sit?
And I wonder what would happen if we were capable of the same level of outrage by the pentagon’s complete failure to hold itself accountable?
Well, I made it out of the woods, in case you were wondering. I did not get shot. Nobody came at me. I executed my twelve-point turn, downshifted The Beast into first gear, and made my hour-and-a-half long journey back to pavement. That evening, I parked on the side of the road, dropped the curtains, drank two beers, and passed out.
I awoke to the sounds of passing semi trailers, chirping birds, and the high-pitched chainsaw of cicadas. After a quick, cold shower, The Beast and I began our search for gas. It was a short venture, as I quickly discovered that I had pulled over roughly five hundred feet from the center of a small town: Kingston, Arkansas.
The sign above the store said, “Coffee,” which I needed, desperately. The center square of Kingston looks like every bit of small town Americana, I’ve ever passed through, and after the doorbell chimed, I was met by a pleasant woman who upon hearing my about my quest for black gold told me to follow her to the back of the shop where she kept the coffee bar. Full service.
While fixing me a latte, we chatted about why I was passing through. I told her that I was heading to Chicago for a wedding, and then I’d be meeting two friends, and we’d begin our journey to follow the presidential campaigns for the next two months. Which one? She asked. Both, I told her.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to write,” I said.
“We had a reporter in here last week doing the same thing.”
“A gentleman a bit older than you.”
I smiled and looked around. There were knickknacks everywhere. It was, after all, an antique store.
“I get my beans from a roaster in Chicago,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“You’ve got a nice place.”
“Thank you.” She paused. “So are you writing for anybody in particular?”
“A website,” I said. “Nobody big-name.”
“Are you going to be writing about the real stuff?”
I laughed. “I hope so,” I said. “Just planning on talking to people, going to the events. See what people have to say.”
“You know it was an amateur journalist that shot the video of Hillary fainting,” She said.
“Oh really?” I said.
She handed me the coffee, and wished me luck on my journey. I walked next door and bought a Philly cheesesteak from a diner before I gassed up and got back on the road.
Full disclosure: The cheesesteak was delicious.
The conversation in the antique store was not exactly a mind-melting line of questioning, I admit. But while I made my way into Missouri over the course of the next few hours, I considered the implications of this small interaction.
Mrs. Clinton’s health, a video, a “gotcha” moment, and the gears of the noise machine start turning. Five days later, the next woman that I talk to about politics mentions that they’re saying Mrs. Clinton might have Parkinson’s. But when I mention that that’s the first I’ve heard of it, and that such a statement seems like a bit of a reach, she mentions a blood clot in Mrs. Clinton’s leg and deep vein thrombosis.
That four days and three states later the constant speculation had mutated so far as to offer a medical diagnosis, I find unsettling.
UP, UP, AND AWAY
I’ve picked up the fellas. Photographer, check. Filmmaker, check. We left Chicago on September 18th and ended up in Wisconsin. It’s September 19th now, and we’re in Dubuque, Iowa, fifteen minutes from walking into a Mike Pence event. It’s 6:00pm, nearly 90 degrees inside of The Beast, and I haven’t worked in three months, but we’re officially on the trail.
Full disclosure: I have no idea what’s coming.
But that’s okay.