This spring, my family took a cross-country road trip. My husband and I have a son who has autism and other cognitive difficulties. Having read about autistic children getting kicked off planes, as well as the recent United debacle in which an Asian-American doctor was forcibly dragged from his seat, when we needed to go to Los Angeles from our home in New York City for some medical treatment for our son, we knew we were going to have to drive.
It is common now for commentators to chide the “coastal elite” for sticking to their liberal urban bubbles, and urge them to get out into the heartland to understand the way other Americans live. This seemed to present an opportunity. We mapped out a route that would take us through the south of the country, including West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. But as we would learn on our trip, it is an exceedingly weird time to be a person of color, as I am, or a person with disabilities, as my son is, in the middle of Trump country.
We piled into our ten-year-old Volvo and set out. It didn’t take long before we spotted our first Trump signs in Pennsylvania—as well as Confederate flags. By the time we got to our first overnight stop in Winchester, Virginia, I spotted Confederate flag souvenirs and shirts that read “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media” and “National Rifle Association” for purchase in the truck stops—one of which was next to a repair shop called the Triple K. There were always lots of knives for sale at the rest stops, with names like THE DEFENDER, “made with elite military and law enforcement groups in mind, as failure is not an option.” I wondered what, or who, the people who bought those knives thought they were defending themselves against.
I tried to keep my Buddhist chill about me. Most locals were friendly, or at least left us alone. But I felt newly self-conscious. I’d become used to New Yorkers’ attitude of benign disinterest in other people, including being unfazed by our son’s vocalizations and odd, sometimes startling physical movements. Outside the city, I could feel people watching us more closely. A few times, we had to try to get our son, J., to be quieter and more contained. Then again, I thought, maybe outside the city, people were just more interested in personal goings-on because they didn’t see as much of each other. Neighbors tended to be cut off from one another by tall fences and driveways that disappeared into massive garages. In some towns and suburbs, we never saw a single pedestrian; everyone traveled by car. It was a far cry from the annoying, often-odiferous scrum of elbows and backpacks that is commuting by subway in New York. There, the sheer materiality of the bodies to navigate through makes it impossible to be overly protective of personal space. In a car, you are untouched.
Some people went out of their way for us. At a Country Inns and Suites in Virginia, I felt like an elitist asking if the water coming out of a dispenser was filtered, for our son, But the employee seemed to enjoy taking me all the way to an exercise room where I could get plenty.
At one stop, where my husband tried to get our son to stop ululating in the gas station, the attendant wouldn’t let me pay for my coffee. “I’ll get it, bless you,” she said. I thought it was probably a karmic pay-it-forward thing (or maybe an acknowledgment of what a crime gas station coffee is), and I was charmed. But a few hours later, the owner of the rock store also told me, “Bless you.” I hadn’t sneezed. He pointed at J with his chin. “Because you’ll have to take care of him for the rest of your life,” he explained.
As we drove further south, the cars got bigger, our station wagon became relatively smaller, and we encountered more and more inadvertent reminders of the ways our country has long terrorized its own people. In Arkansas, we took a morning to visit Central High School, the site of an early and exceedingly violent example of white resistance to integration. The National Park Service has erected a heartbreaking museum, which includes the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” trying to walk to school in the midst of a howling white crowd on the brink of violence. When the crowds couldn’t get to the children, they turned on the journalists, the first being African-American journalist Alex Wilson, who was savagely beaten.
A bloody Wilson, having once run from the Ku Klux Klan as a young man in Florida, had resolved to not run from racists ever again. In the footage he is incredibly composed and dignified as he’s brutally beaten. He never stopped to see a doctor or rest, but instead continued to work, filing his story on deadline, from his hotel room. Images of Wilson being assaulted appeared in newspapers around the world, prompting then-president Eisenhower to call in the Arkansas National Guard and the US Army to protect the Little Rock Nine–a reminder of what good journalism, and intrepid journalists, can do.
Our next resting stop was Oklahoma City, where our hotel was next to a Bass Pro Shop—complete with boats for rent, shirts proclaiming “Keep Calm and Carry Guns,” and camo-patterned Barcaloungers upon which you could rest your “Tactical Mil-spec boots” and gaze at a wall hanging also for sale: This Place is Politically Incorrect. We say Merry Christmas, One Nation Under God. We Salute Our Flag and Give Thanks to Our Troops. If That Offends You, LEAVE.
On the back, the label: Great for home or office!
The next prominent historic site we took the time to see was the Alfred P. Murrah Building, the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. There, we saw a moving exhibit including a garden with 168 empty chairs, with smaller chairs representing the 15 children, including four infants, who were in the building’s daycare, killed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichol’s terrorism.
It’s kind of strange to have a road trip turn into an inadvertent tour of domestic terrorism. The Trump signs were getting larger; some looked newly erected. We passed a signpost for the Cherokee Trail of Tears, another reminder of the many legacies of white supremacy.
After almost a week of driving, there was nothing between us and California besides pure desert. We made our last stop an Airbnb in Lake Havasu, a fake lake created by damming the great Colorado River, and a major sunbird destination in winter. Apparently, in high season, the lake gets so dense with party boats you could pull a Jesus and walk continuously on from one shore to another. The cupboards were filled with giant plastic souvenir tumblers.
Our Airbnb featured a hot tub and mixed-martial arts equipment, which we were told we were welcome to use. We didn’t meet the hosts, who were friendly and helpful via text. The bathroom had a magazine rack like I’d never seen: it was all American Rifleman (“Official journal of the NRA”) and a few issues of Diabetes Today. I took some time to page through a Rifleman, which had no people of color except for a few older issues complaining about Obama. One issue had several anti-New York City articles, criticizing its gun laws. The magazines also, somewhat curiously, had a lot of ads for knives.
The next morning, while having my coffee on the shared patio, a man came out to cover the hot tub. “Hi, good morning!” I said. I didn’t know if he was the owner or a guest. He didn’t answer. I petted his dog. “You have a nice dog!” I called out. He didn’t respond, but called the dog to come back to him.
Later, my husband came out and in his gravelly voice said, “Hey, how you doing?”
“How are ya?” the man said back.
As we saw him drive away, his massive pickup hauling a massive boat, we determined that he was a guest. It was the kind of interaction that I can’t peg as definitely racist. (Why had he said hi to my white husband, and not to me?) But it made me feel bad nonetheless.
Still, I didn’t spend too much time pondering the exchange. We were onto LA at last. Our route took us around the “RV Riviera”—the part of Arizona that boasts the largest RV concentration in the US.
Parker, Arizona, at the tip of the Riviera, was the last gas station before we hit two hundred miles of Mohave Desert, passing Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea on our way to the scorchingly hot Palm Springs. As I pulled up to the pump, a sunburned white man in a pickup hauling two jet skis pulled up simultaneously from the other direction, so that our cars were nose-to-nose. Still, there was plenty of room for both vehicles.
The man started yelling and gesticulating at me. Both of our cars’ windows were up, given the heat, so I couldn’t hear what he was saying. But one glance at his face, twisted with rage, his mouth a big dark O of anger, made me back up and pull away, moving the car to the pump furthest away from him.
“Did you see that?” I asked my husband.
“Yes, ugh, I’m not going to make eye contact with him.”
But I had to sneak a glance. The man was leaning out of his cab, arm chicken-winged on the door, eyes fixed on me, his face in a twist, radiant with that kind of hate I’d seen in those pictures at the Central High museum—but also, more recently, on the news from footage of Trump rallies.
Was he yelling at me for being a woman driver, an Asian driver, a Volvo driver? It was impossible to tell. But something about me had triggered an aggressive reaction that seemed to make no sense. Then again, in the same week we made our way across the country, white supremacists stabbed to death Richard Collins III, a young man about to graduate college in Maryland, and in a separate incident, two good Samaritans in Portland. Here was one answer as to who was buying all the knives I kept seeing.
Our trip was a reminder that, if you aren’t a white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied person in America, staying inside the liberal bubble can have its advantages. That said, even in New York, I am often on high alert, gauging constantly how to avoid being terrorized while still maintaining a modicum of dignity. Frankly, it is wearing me out. How many productive hours are lost, how much cognitive bandwidth and emotional energy must we use while trying to figure out how to avoid white, male rage? The 2016 election gave rise to a new focus on disenfranchised white men in America, yet I am always the one who has to alter my behavior.
Just writing these thoughts down means that I am opening myself up to accusations that I’m a “snowflake” who is “too sensitive” and “politically correct.” People will question whether the hostilities I, and people like me, experience every day are even real. But a trip through Trump country offers a clear reminder that we are not imagining things. The landscape of the US is filled with evidence of the ways that this country—not all at once, and not all the time—works to make many of the people who live here feel unsafe.