As our family drove down a perfectly straight highway that seemed to extend to infinity, the sky was movie-set blue and the clouds felt like a 3D Charmin ad. My wife, Sandy, and I were nearing Santa Fe when our daughters, Maya and Talia, otherwise known as M&T, noticed ominous dark clouds in the distance. Thankfully, this surreal-looking storm was far to the north from the direction we’d been traversing for several hundred miles; at least, until our GPS diverted us straight into the eye of the black abyss. That the road was completely empty led me to believe something was gravely wrong. I asked Sandy to Google “storms” in the area, but it was too late. We were going in.
The wind was ferocious and rain poured down with the velocity of silver bullets. The scene made me recall the iconic moment where Thelma and Louise hold hands while driving off a cliff, except at this point Sandy and I were at each other’s throat, and there was no way we were touching each other. When a huge truck sped towards us from the adjacent lane, it was a sigh of relief knowing we weren’t in this alone.
That optimism quickly turned to fear when the truck almost barreled over us, splashing buckets of water into our windshield. Just as things couldn’t get more desperate, rays of sunshine were spotted in the distance. It was as if we had been trying to escape the ocean’s depths and could finally see the shimmering surface of the sea. A few moments later, our van burst out of the storm and into the sun, and a giant rainbow welcomed us with open arms.
We were a long way from Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Heights is a family-oriented community, consisting in large part of dual income professionals who place a strong emphasis on education. I’ve never quite identified with this, placing more importance on experiences than on academics, But, nevertheless, school is the source of much anxiety, and those feelings were only exacerbated once Covid-19 hit. Working from home while taking care of young children is challenging enough. But, when you throw Zoom school into the mix, it’s utter mayhem.
Like many working parents in America, our emotional stability was put to the test as work and school demands increased under the pandemic. We were managing multiple projects while constantly excusing ourselves from Zoom meetings because, for example, our youngest needed us to flush the toilet for her. The girls were constantly fighting, and we were permanently behind on cooking, cleaning, laundry, and dishes. The stereo blasted Who Let the Dogs Out? on repeat, and it was all done within the confines of a 1,100 square foot apartment. One of the hardest parts of my day was convincing my kids to put on a shirt — we gave up on pants — to make the 6-foot commute from the couch to our makeshift dining room classroom. At one point, I lashed out at Maya: “you know, when I was your age I used to have to get driven to school. Both ways!”
We barely had the bandwidth to think about how the situation was affecting us, let alone the impact it was having on our children. M&T already had an unhealthy screen addiction before the pandemic hit, but at least back then we fought against it. Now, these devices were our only savior — the only things that could keep our kids occupied while we worked.
Many of our neighbors had temporarily escaped to nearby suburban or rural towns along the northeast. We planned to stay put, so when I lost my job due to a round of Covid-related layoffs, it became my responsibility to handle the kid’s Zoom sessions. I also used the opportunity to introduce M&T to a slew of 80’s movies, including Jaws, Gremlins, and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. When I wept uncontrollably at the end of The Goonies, I knew it was time for a change.
This outpour of emotion was not just from Chunk telling Sloth he loves him, but also from a deep dark feeling that the world was changing at a pace we’ve never experienced before. Helicopters buzzed overhead, protesters stormed the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, and you couldn’t leave the house without fear of contracting a potentially fatal virus. My friends were debating politics, my kids were asking dark questions, and everything many of us treasure about America seemed to be in question. We had had enough, and when summer camps were cancelled, we made the decision to get out of town.
Since Maya and Talia weren’t getting a proper education or attending an enriching summer camp, I was determined to give them a bonafide cultural experience — maybe even an adventure. The goal was simple: we would break out of our Brooklyn bubble to see the country in all its various attitudes, shapes, and forms. Our route was not the most expeditious — we were to go down south, nearly reaching Mexico before heading to the Pacific Northwest — but it provided the greatest opportunity for exploration. It was also not the safest, as these were the states hit hardest by Covid. But, If early Americans risked disease, starvation, and other dangers to explore the western frontier, we could at least handle facemasks, obsessive hand washing, and social distancing.
I must admit, I was concerned about being down south during Covid. But, it wasn’t the virus, per se, that worried me. I had read that people in these parts didn’t take kindly to face coverings, and that some establishments were even refusing service to people who wore one. As a New Yorker, I don’t shy away from conflict, but I felt we were inviting trouble.
There was also the issue of how M&T would handle not just being away from home for nearly two months, but spending so much time in a car. These are city kids with a strong preference for the train, and on the occasion we did take an Uber, they would hold their noses and complain that the car smells. I would then have to apologize to the driver, explaining that they say that about every car.I have to give M&T credit: they didn’t kill each other during the 13 hour drive to our first destination: Lake Junaluska, a small community 30 miles west of Asheville, North Carolina. The only real conflict came when we saw a gigantic rainbow just a half hour outside our Airbnb, and Maya insisted that we drive hundreds of miles out of the way to get the treasure at its other end. Thankfully, I finally learned to put my foot down. We arrived at our house rental exhausted, but the kids were exhilarated by the concept of a new home — well, at least until Talia, never having seen a transparent porch door before, ran head first into ours and cried to go back home.
The next morning we went to the community pool, stepping out of our minivan carrying beach towels while wearing bathing suits with surgical masks. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone, but I’m pretty sure we got a few stares — employees seemed to be the only people consistently wearing masks. There were social distancing signs everywhere, but apparently kids aren’t great at following directions.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for us to let go of our Covid neurosis, and before we knew it, the pandemic was out of mind. When Maya exclaimed, “It doesn’t feel like there’s Coronavirus here!,” it was a profound observation that forced us to see things from a local perspective. In the city, it’s easy to imagine exponential transmission of germs, and everyone knows someone who knows someone who had the virus. But around here, you can see how a government mask mandate can feel like overreach. It was just our first full day, and already our travels had provided us with insight. I was excited for what else lay in store.
The first moment it truly felt like we were in another part of the world was at a North Carolina Walmart Supercenter. For M&T, Walmart is an exotic fantasy land, filled with countless aisles of toys. When they picked something that looked expensive but lacked a price tag, I approached an apparent employee for assistance.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began.”
“Sorry, I don’t work here.”
“Oh, I saw the pricing gun, and…oh, that’s a real gun.”
For someone from Brooklyn, the sight of a handgun in a big box retailer evokes some deeply held assumptions about the stark contrast between red and blue states, but the local farmers market conveyed a much more nuanced reality. If America was, indeed, falling apart, it wasn’t apparent here. While some people were wearing masks and others weren’t, no one was giving anyone a hard time. An older man in dusty overalls, MAGA hat, and star spangled mask loaded produce off of a truck as a nearby band broke into a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.
The first few weeks of our trip went off without a hitch. We hiked to a waterfall, where a crowd applauded as Maya, after hesitating for about 15 minutes, finally had the guts to slide down a huge rock under the water. When a tree on our property fell during a thunderstorm, it missed our van by mere inches. We were seeing and meeting people from all walks of life — whether that was floating on our backs in an Ozarks pool while burly men with Jesus tattoos drank beer and listened to country music, or when an African American girl playing with Maya and Talia kept calling me daddy, as if it was my name. It was exhilarating to feel so free — even within the confines of social distancing — and all felt right in the world. Until it didn’t.
The drive from southern Missouri to Santa Fe was incredibly long — 13 hours if you drive nonstop, but closer to 17 with kids. Sandy and I marveled at tiny Texan football towns proudly displaying their local high school mascot, and small communities whose wide assortment of local election lawn signs illustrated the vibrancy of American democracy. But any way you slice it, this was an excruciatingly long drive, and before long we got on each other’s nerves. Whether it was Maya chomping loudly on Pringles, Sandy talking to her mother and sisters about nothing at all, Talia dropping her iPad every two minutes, or my getting frustrated when someone inevitably talked, screamed, or cried during the best part of one of my favorite songs. We had already driven nearly 40 hours on this road trip, and I began to wonder if we had it in us. This worried me because I knew that if I had even a modicum of such thoughts, the kids were thinking it loud and clear. Then we hit White Sands.
Out of the millions of people who have visited White Sands National Monument, I’m sure none have been able to adequately describe it. It’s one of those things you just have to experience yourself. For me, it was a cross between the alternate dimension of Stranger Things, a wild peyote trip, and this Boyz to Men video. I can’t even imagine seeing this through the eyes of a 5 and 7 year old who’ve barely left Brooklyn. As the sunset turned the dunes a gorgeous shade of baby blue, M&T wrapped their arms around each other, marveling at a nearly full moon over this impossibly martian-like landscape.
After that evening, it was like someone had flipped a switch in M&T’s heads. Suddenly, they became highly inquisitive about the stars, nature, and more. Maya consciously decided to stop watching so much iPad. They were now cognizant of the adventure they were on and embraced it.For the past hundred years, the cinema has provided a brief refuge for Americans looking to escape the stresses of everyday life. That industry has been completely upended by the pandemic, and some independent theaters are making ends meet by renting out their facilities. When I saw that a theater in Tucson had such an offering, I decided to surprise Sandy, and the kids, for her birthday with a private screening of The Goonies. As we sat in the vast, dark, and empty theater, I realized something: this movie is incredibly unrealistic. Between school, camps, lessons, and classes, kids today barely have a minute to themselves, let alone being able to venture outside unsupervised. And, there’s no way they’d be able to find a lost treasure without some sort of app. In other words, the world we knew left us a long time ago. In America’s Grand Circle region, though, things haven’t changed much in millions of years. The impossibly colorful boulders, canyons, and stars of Northern Arizona and Southwest Utah is what I was looking forward to the most on this trip. As we drove the surprisingly empty road to the Grand Canyon, we could hardly contain our excitement, telling the kids every 30 seconds how much of a treat they were in for. So, you can imagine the look on our faces to find that due to Covid, this particular gate — the only one for hundreds of miles — had just been indefinitely closed. I had become Clark Griswald of National Lampoon fame.
The next half an hour in the car was tense, with Sandy and I accusing each other for this blunder, and the kids taking sides. Just as this bickering reached its zenith, Maya noticed that the road we were now on ran parallel to a beautiful view of canyons, rivers, gigantic red rock mountains, and the bluest sky I’d ever seen. It was breathtaking. A moment later we saw a sign for a scenic pull-off and joined the other 3-4 cars who had done the same.
While gawking at the amazing view, I looked around at the other tourists sharing the space. There was a group of young Asian-Americans, an African-American family, and an extended clan from Illinois. We are all there — despite everything going on in the world — to marvel at the same humbling, divine-like presence. My heart filled with joy, sadness, and anger all at once, and I wanted to stand on a nearby rock and yell, “Fuck Corona!,” at the top of my lungs, imagining a chorus of voices following me in the same. A moment later, Talia asked me to carry her, and the moment was gone. But in my mind, it actually happened.
After spending a few weeks in astonishingly hot, dry, and arid terrain, it was a relief to finally make it to Astoria Oregon — home of The Goonies — and Long Beach, Washington, our final stop on this 7-week adventure. It’s intuitive that there would be stark cultural differences between, say, the Pacific Northwest and down south. However, Long Beach was a complete curveball. Cars adorning “resist” bumper stickers shared dirt roads with ones who displayed “redneck lives matter.” Trump signs were posted on lawns across the street from cannabis dispensaries. It was hard to pin this town down, and, in a way, it encapsulated an idyllic America.
On our last evening, I hid bags of fake jewels on the beach, covering them with sand for the kids to find. The moment they found them was priceless enough to justify the massive expedition we were just wrapping up. As one last hurrah, Maya asked me to take her driving on the beach, just like the police chase scene in The Goonies. As far as I know, this is a distinctively Oregon-coast activity, and it appeared simple enough. As we began to embark, I thought how amazing it was that we didn’t hit any major proverbial road bumps on this trip. At that exact moment, our van suddenly stopped — we were stuck on the sand. As I tried in vain to gun it in reverse and forward and reverse again, a pickup truck came to see if I needed help. I looked at the driver, who was wearing a flamboyantly pro-Trump hat, and uttered three simple words to accurately and efficiently convey my predicament:
“I’m from Brooklyn.”
I needn’t say any more. Before I knew it, this complete stranger was using his truck to tow me out of the sand. He didn’t make any assumptions about me considering I was from one of the most liberal hubs in the universe, nor did I make any assumptions about him. It was just one human helping another out, and both of us sharing a good laugh about it. We could all use a little more of that.
As a wide swath of Americans shared the same beach, the same waves, and the same sunset, I caught a glimpse of the nation that once was, and in some ways still is. Summer was drawing to an end and the approaching school year presented a whole new set of challenges. But, I took solace in the fact that my kids had gotten the broad sense of our country that few do but many should. Sometimes we all get stuck in our bubbles and it would serve us well to let go of our fears and explore. Maybe you will discover an America you didn’t know still existed. Maybe you will walk away encouraged that despite all of our varied differences, time and time again we’ve come together under united principles: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, that is something we should nurture, cherish, and treasure.