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There and Back Again

posted Jan 20, 2020, 4:47 PM by Kathryn Fleck
    November of my freshman year of college there was a room at the end of my dorm hall that everyone spent their free time in. The door was always propped open, and someone was always inside. I was there more nights than I wasn’t. One night in November I went by twice, leaving six people watching the news at eight, and returning at ten to find just two still watching the votes count up on the 2016 election. A few weeks later when I visited my parents, they were discussing leaving the country, to emigrate to Iceland. They’d planned to take my younger sister, if they decided to go. I marched in the women’s march that year, I went to pride for the first time, I looked into getting a foreign passport.

    This summer I drove with my partner from Pennsylvania to Colorado and back again in three weeks. I promised myself I would talk to people on the trip, to baristas, servers, camp site administrators, AirBNB hosts, anyone who would have a conversation. I wanted, and still want, to understand the country that I often feel would prefer I be anyone but me. I wanted to meet the people who think I’m going to hell for being queer, the ones who believe I have no right to birth control, the people who carry a gun to Walmart, and I wanted to understand them.

    At our first stop in Roanoke Virginia, we stayed a night with a woman named Minor. She had made the quilt on the bed in her spare room for her husband when they were still dating. It was bright and warm and heavy. I slept better under that blanket than any other night on the trip.
    In St. Louis Missouri, we got dinner at a takeout Italian restaurant that couldn’t have been bigger than my one bedroom apartment’s living room. It had three staff members, all of whom were born and raised in St. Louis, and none of whom had any intention of leaving. When they asked why anyone would ever want to drive across the country just for the hell of it, I told them I wanted to understand things better. They liked that answer. That night there was another couple staying in our AirBNB. They were traveling to see their daughter graduate college, but weren’t sure they’d beat the flooding river on their way out in the morning.
    The next day, we stopped for barbecue in Kansas City, on the line between Kansas and Missouri. In the time it took us to eat, the township sheriff came in, bought a jar of the sauce being bottled by the middle schooler behind the counter, and received and paid for a plate of food without ever ordering. He wore a hat like a Canadian mountie, and knew the boy behind the counter was starting high school next year.
    Our first multi-night stop was in Omaha Nebraska. We stayed with a man who introduced us to His Roommate the way you introduced your middle school crush to your father as Just Your Friend. We told him we were going to Denver, he told us he moved there after high school. He said, “You two will love it so much, you’ll never want to leave.”
    In North Platte we found a campground run by a woman who lived there full time from May to October. When she saw our licence plate, she said “You two are far from home.” it was neither the first nor the last time we heard that. We passed the middle point of the US somewhere between Omaha and her backyard.
    In Denver I was in charge of finding our AirBNB, which, to the host’s credit, did appear legitimate from my phone’s screen. When we got there, we had to fish the spare key out of a toolbox full of rusty nails. The door stuck. Inside, it smelled like the basement of my grandmother’s house on Long Island, before her kids moved her out, back when it was a hoarder’s nest. On the counter was a cup of bent and burnt spoons. Above the TV a box of syringes from CVS. On the table a bottle of isopropyl. I found heroin in his top cabinet drawer. We left, in a hurry, and stayed somewhere else.
    The replacement BNB reminded me of a hostel I stayed at in Japan. The host was a middle aged Jamaican woman who nearly cried when I folded her laundry so I could use her dryer. She let us smoke in her yard. While I folded, a couple in the living room fought in Spanish about whether or not to force their teenage sons to have a movie night. I can only assume they assumed I didn’t speak spanish.

    On our return trip I talked to even fewer people than on the way out. My partner found us a campsite at lake Meredith outside Amarillo, Texas where I didn’t talk to anyone. We got there at 3pm and watched the sun drop slowly behind storm clouds so overwhelming they made me consider that god might, in fact, exist. Who am I to pretend I know?
    In Oklahoma we slept in my car for the second time on that trip, before going on to camp in Arkansas in a forest that could have been from Lord of The Rings. The park ranger we paid for our campsite wasn’t much older than us. He told us which sites were within range of the wifi. We didn’t see him again before we left.
    Two stops from home, we passed through St. Louis again to satisfy my undying need to see their city museum. A few miles out of town we stopped to get gas, pulling into a station off a rural interstate. Before we got to the pump my partner noticed there were far more people there than could reasonably be getting gas by coincidence. Most were men, teenage to adult, and almost every man there had a gun. We left.
    In St. Louis, at the museum, we spoke with students from the local college who ran Beatnik Bob’s, the cafe bar on the third floor. They invited us to participate in some of their installation art, decorating the fort-like space adjacent to the cafe. Later, outside on the giant slides running from the third floor to the first, one of the attendants hit on both me and my partner in one fell swoop. We traded Instagram handles.
    Our last stop was with a friend of mine in Pittsburgh, someone I hadn’t seen in years. In the morning, we stopped at a coffee shop I remembered from another trip we took the year before. The barista told me I should be a hairdresser, that she wished she knew how to do hair so she could do hers red like mine.

    By the time we got home I hadn’t answered the questions I left with. Instead, I learned this: people are kind, and people are human. When you can’t understand someone, or the way they do something, it’s not their fault, and it’s not yours either. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Nobody comes to be who they are, or believe what they do without good reason. Try to examine your own path next time you can’t follow someone else's. If that fails, try driving across the country. It can’t hurt.