By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Notes from the road report “America is going to be all right.”
In this summer of Trump and Hillary, this season of uncertainty and shattered trust, this time of dissension between so many segments of society, a road trip west to Chicago and the heartland of the USA was like a crash course in American culture, circa July 2016.
After a few days traveling on the interstates – routes 90 and 80, the Lake Erie-brushing freeway in Cleveland, the corn and silo-crazed cropland of Indiana, and the Skyway in Chicago –it feels like being inside a kaleidoscope.
Images blend together. Rest stops all look like one another. The same trailer trucks box you in for a hundred miles at a time, but the people, ah the people . . . they are different, unique, enigmatic, troubling, generous, heart-rending, reassuring.
Everything is magnified. In upstate New York the weather in summer can be Wizard of Oz furious. A sudden thunder storm leaves you waiting for Dorothy and Toto to go hurtling by riding the ominous sky in their bungalow. Endless acres of vineyards, their leaves slapped by the wind, leave you a bit awed.
But ultimately it is the people that confound and amaze you. At rest stops in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois African Americans, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, orthodox Jews with children not yet three feet tall wearing side curls and teenagers in homburg hats, stream in and out of the buildings or stretch their legs in the parking lots. The nation teems with people of diverse origins and various backgrounds, yet for the most part they wait in line for a rest room stall in orderly calm, and they belly up to the McDonald’s counter without incident. There appears to be a deep reservoir of tolerance among these travelers of many different stripes.
In Gary, Indiana, though, where the Iron Skillet Restaurant tempts you to try grits and gravy, the eatery backs up to a Travel Center where the gritty customers tempt you to look straight ahead. Maybe it is the 50-something year-old man with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol on his hip that causes you to become hyper vigilant.
Dressed in khaki cargo pants and a faded almost tattered khaki t-shirt with the screen printed words “New York Tactical Unit” barely legible on it, he wears SWAT style footgear, and has a pair of handcuffs dangling from a belt loop on his pants. It could be a uniform or it could be a costume assembled at Walmart.
He never takes his cell phone from his ear as he repeatedly looks through the window of the truckers’ lounge, circles around to watch the foot traffic at a nearby ATM, and returns to the lounge window again. He never alters the grim expression on his face, either.
The food was surprisingly good, but we wasted no time paying for our gas and leaving Mr. Glock-on-belt to his unknown mission.
In Cleveland the Republican National Convention is about to begin. The hotels and motels within a certain radius have all doubled their rates. A kind desk clerk, who somehow reveals that she went to college at Johnson and Wales University, advises us where to go to pay normal prices. So, we end up in Elyria, hungry, tired, depleted. A Red Lobster near the motel seems like a haven to Ocean Staters who are already feeling seafood deprived. A compassionate older African American waitress, named Andie, clues us in on just what to order and cossets us perfectly.
Another day somewhere else in Ohio two late-middle age men tinker on their Harleys in a parking lot. Something says we should talk to them. Despite their biker mien, they are instantly affable and warm. We joke about the maintenance demands of motorcycle ownership as I tell my small story of leftover parts when as a youth I attempted my own repairs to an ancient Indian cycle I briefly owned.
It soon emerges that the men are on a cross country ride and have recently driven through the desert in Arizona into Texas, burning an entire tank of gas without encountering one other living soul or seeing any sign of civilization, just making it to the next fuel stop. They are from Wareham, Massachusetts, one recently relocating to Florida. Both are widowers, the Florida transplant only five weeks into his bereavement. The trip is to fight the gloom. After some talk about New England and Rhode Island restaurants we wish each other well.
At a stop near the Pennsylvania border while trying to get a soda from a vending machine, we meet an aged Black Muslim man, his wife, and his son. They don’t have the right change for a drink. I give the older man some money, and he tells me they are on their way to Pittsburgh to visit family. We talk a little. They seem very weary. Later, before leaving the stop, in a friendly gesture, they come back and share some travel advice about the highways leading to Pittsburgh. We wish each other well.
Days afterwards in Harrisville, Pennsylvania there is breakfast at The Family Tradition, a quaint eating place, which as the sign proudly proclaims, was established in 1930. Its walls are covered with license plates which look as though they have been there since opening day. It is the kind of spot where the young local undertaker sitting at the counter is perfectly willing to discuss his love life and talk shop with strangers, likely because he knows he won’t ever see them again. It takes 86 years to build the kind of atmosphere the place exudes.
When you drive on America’s surface, not fly over it, the earth vibrates with the nation’s rhythms. You resonate with its harmonic. Miles of construction slow things to a crawl. You see people in cars and trucks mere feet away in their own steel capsules, experiencing the journey in their own way, and you come upon things like the horrendous aftermath of an accident that demolished a U-Haul trailer. Small pieces of it are strewn along the median for two hundred feet, mixed with personal belongings, clothing, an ice cooler, a shoe, something that might have been a laptop, and you never will know what happened or how bad it was.
You also get to meet people like Kayla, a young woman working at Charlie’s Restaurant in Maumee, Ohio. A junior at the University of Michigan, she is as focused as a laser beam. Sweet and cheerful and super intelligent, she knows exactly what she wants to do and has her education planned out through the post-doctoral level. It is not hot air. She talks specifics and details while serving up hotcakes, and she is clearly extremely capable. She already knows who she wants to study with and what she wants to learn. Her goal is to redefine how autism is perceived and how autistic children are taught and treated. If fate is kind, she will do it. You can tell.
Despite everything spewing out of the TV all day that might inspire doubt, with people like Kayla coming along, America is going to be all right.