Journal #46: Circling America, Pt. 1

by Miles Raymer

6 weeks. 12,000 miles. 26 states. 23 National Parks.


Back in April, Jessie laid out the schedule for our upcoming summer road trip. She wanted us to trace a loop around the country, heading north from our home in Northern California, turning east when we got to Washington, cutting through southern Canada into Maine, south from there as far as Arkansas, and then circling back westward.

I scoffed. I thought we would spend far too much time driving, too little time enjoying each location, and would return home feeling blitzed and bleary. Jessie scoffed at my scoffing, saying it would be fine. Better than fine, even. It would be fun, she insisted. “Okay,” I said. “It’s your trip. You put it off for two years so I could tag along.” I played nice, anticipating burnout somewhere near the eastern seaboard. I’d get my told you so moment.

But it never came. She was right, as usual. And I’ve never been so delighted to be wrong.

What follows is the narrative of our trip, insofar as I can reconstruct it using photos, memories, and notes taken along the way. I’ll be releasing it in three parts: The People, The Splendor, and The Squalor. As always, thanks for reading.

Jessie, me, and our trip mascot, Archimedes. This was taken just before we pulled out of our garage in Humboldt.

Me, Jessie, Archimedes (trip mascot), and our trusty Toyota Yaris. Taken just before we left home.

Part One: The People

The Raymers are fortunate to have an assortment of friends and family across the continental USA. My parents have befriended many fascinating folks over the years, and I’ve begun adding a modest portion of my own contacts to that informal network. As Jessie was picking our route and choosing which parks to visit, I provided her with a list of places where we could enjoy free lodging, homemade meals, and good company.

Without these people who took us into their homes in the most open and generous fashion, our trip would have been significantly more expensive and (more importantly) much less interesting. To a social animal, the character of a place is inextricably linked to its native inhabitants, and it was only through these individuals that certain regions and communities came to life for us.

Our first visit was in Portland, OR, where we stayed with my old friends Xande, Tom, and Kira. They used to live in Humboldt, where Xande directed the Instantaneous Theater Company. Xande and Tom’s daughter Fiona and their son Sam (who has since become Kira) were important members of my social circle during my junior high and high school years. It was fun to catch up on life news, politics, and Tom’s work in psychiatry. I especially enjoyed meeting Kira for the first time since her transition. She’s grown up a lot since last I saw her, and is currently working as a computer programmer. Kira is poised and assertive in ways I never found Sam to be, but just as brainy as he ever was.

While in Portland we also grabbed some drinks with my friend Katie and her boyfriend, Greg. I’ve known Katie since my first term at UO, but had never met Greg in their several years of dating. Unsurprisingly, he was terrific––probably the single most gregarious individual we encountered on the trip. They make a lovely couple.

Katie and Greg with Archimedes

Katie and Greg with Archimedes

From Portland, we headed northeast to Omak, a small town nestled in the green strip of Washington’s Okanagan Valley. Jessie was born in Omak, and her mother’s family still lives there. I’d never met any of them before, but they welcomed me like I was already a member of the family. I spent several days getting to know Jessie’s grandparents Lloyd and Joyce, her mother Dee and aunt Jeri, Dee’s partner Charles, Jessie’s cousin Alysha, and Alysha’s two young children, Jack and Jill.

Jessie's family. From left: Alysha, Jill, Jack, Dee, Jessie, ______, and Lloyd

Jessie’s family. From left: Alysha, Jill, Jack, Dee, Jessie, Joyce, and Lloyd

I was happy to finally meet the whole bunch, and I managed not to do anything too embarrassing or brash (or so Jessie assures me).

I felt a special affinity for Jessie’s granddad, Lloyd. Like me, Lloyd loves to debate politics, economics, and social issues. At 87-years-old, he is a WWII veteran and former college economics professor––a goldmine of life experience whose intellect is still sharp and hungry. He charmed me with his quick argumentation and informed opinions.

We were particularly fortunate to be in Omak the day SCOTUS announced its ruling on marriage equality. Lloyd explained just how different today’s attitudes about LGBT rights are from when he was young, and showed remarkable flexibility in accepting that such people deserve the same rights and privileges as other Americans.

Despite intellectual baggage from less tolerant eras, Lloyd is still ready to revise his opinions when confronted with new perspectives and evidence. I can only hope to be similarly pliant if I manage to live as long as he has. The short time I spent with Lloyd was more rewarding than any I can remember spending with either of my grandfathers when they were alive, and I’m thrilled that, in less than a year, he will be my granddad-in-law.

Our next stop was Missoula, MT. We stayed with my friend Maddy and her boyfriend Colin. Colin just finished up a Master’s Degree at UM, and Maddy works with individuals transitioning out of the prison system. They’ve been living in Missoula for a couple years, and have wasted no time attracting a lively group of friends. Amongst these are Dave, who was a veteran on Ego when I first started playing with Oregon Ultimate, and his girlfriend Autumn. On our first night in Missoula, Dave and Autumn treated us all to a delicious meal made mostly from local produce.

Missoula folks. From left: Me, Maddy, Dave, Autumn, and Colin

Missoula folks. From left: Me, Maddy, Dave, Autumn, and Colin

The following afternoon, the six of us teamed up with a few of Maddy and Colin’s other friends to float several miles of the Clark Fork River. It was the perfect way to cut the summer heat and enjoy Montana’s renowned scenery. Sprawled across my inner tube, I guzzled beer and began to realize just how far from home we were, and how much farther we had yet to go.

We left Missoula the next day, and after a couple nights in Glacier and Yellowstone, drove to Lander, WY. Lander is home to John and Jill, my godparents. I’ve spent very little time with John and Jill as an adult, so visiting Lander gave me an opportunity to reconnect with them. John attended undergrad, medical school, and residency with my father, so there is probably no other man who knows him like John does. John and Jill own roughly 70 acres of land in Lander, where they raise goats and chickens using passive irrigation techniques. They took us hiking on the evening of our arrival.

John, Jill, and their goats in Lander

John, Jill, and their goats in Lander

There’s something peculiar about bonding with people who helped mould my parents into the people who raised me. John and I spent a couple hours one afternoon listening to music together. As we took turns piping whatever came to mind through his living room speakers, I couldn’t help feeling like a younger version of my father, or an older version of myself. It’s difficult to describe, but I came away feeling that if I’d been of an age with John and Jill during college, I would definitely have wanted to be their friend. How fortunate, then, to be their godson.

John and Jill with Archimedes

John and Jill with Archimedes

On the 4th of July, Jessie and I arrived in Minneapolis, MN, where I got the rare opportunity to spend time with a knot of lively adults who produced one of my best friends from college, Andrew, and his sister, Erica. Andrew and Erica’s parents, Michael and Leslie, cooked up a tasty summer meal and invited several of their friends over. We drank, ate heartily, and floated our pet theories about what’s happening to this crazy country and how to fix it. This felt just like home, and cleared up any ambiguity about why Andrew and I gravitated toward one another in school.

Celebratory Minnesotans (Michael and Leslie on left)

Celebratory Minnesotans (Michael and Leslie on left)

I owe each of these people a big thank you, not just for a terrific holiday dinner away from home, but for putting two great young people out into the world with whom I was lucky to become friends.

After Minneapolis, it would be more than a week before Jessie and I stayed with friends again. We made our way to the east coast via southern Canada, and spent a few days in New England before turning south toward Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh’s not a city we would normally have considered visiting, but my friend Anna has been living there for the last few years. I’ve known Anna since first grade, and couldn’t pass up the chance to learn about Pittsburgh from a happily transplanted Humboldt native.

Being with Anna in Pittsburgh solidified for us the difference between visiting a city as a tourist and seeing it through the eyes of a local. With Anna to show us around, we saw the best of Pittsburgh in just a few short days. Our first night, we went to a bar called The Thunderbird for an open mic session hosted by one of her boyfriend’s bands, Ghost Guts. At one point late in the evening, several musicians from different bands got together and jammed for about twenty minutes, producing a mellifluous soundscape the likes of which I’d never encountered before, and probably won’t again.

The next day, Anna took us to the Duquesne Incline, where we rode a cable car up to a grand panorama of the Pittsburgh’s lush skyline.

Anna with Archimedes and Pittsburgh

Anna with Archimedes and Pittsburgh

After leaving Pittsburgh, we headed south to Asheville, NC. One of Jessie’s best friends grew up in Asheville, and said we should be sure to check it out. Fortunately, one of Ma’s best friends from graduate school lives in Flat Rock, a small neighborhood near Hendersonville, which is right next to Asheville. Richard is a semi-retired journalist and historian who lives with his wife Elisa and their two golden retrievers, Emma and Maggie. All four of them greeted us warmly and made our stay comfortable and fun. Richard and Elisa were invaluable for helping us plan our time in the Asheville area, and even took a whole day of their own time to show us Hendersonville. The highlight of this day was the Carl Sandburg Home, a National Historical Site just a few minutes from their house.

If spending time with John and Jill in Wyoming helped me feel strangely acquainted with my father’s younger self, being with Richard did something similar for my mother. Richard is the most charmingly eccentric person I’ve ever met, and it was easy to imagine him bantering with Ma about any number of historical and political issues. He is also an extraordinarily curious man, so I spent a lot of time filling him in on recent decades of family history, and inquiring about his career and past experiences. Elisa, whose pragmatism keeps Richard’s eccentricity lovingly in check, was also generous in sharing her thoughts and experiences with us.

Emma, Elisa, Richard, and Maggie

From left: Emma, Elisa, Richard, and Maggie

After a long haul westward, we turned in up Santa Fe, NM, to spend a few days with my aunt Deborah and uncle David. Deborah is a realtor and David is a builder who specializes in concrete. Jessie and I were smitten by their beautiful home in Tesuque Village, which David designed and built himself.

Deborah is Ma’s sister, part of my extended family with whom I had very little contact during my childhood and adolescence. I have a few good memories of Deborah from when I was young, but most of my meaningful contact with her has come as an adult. Trading stories and ideas over drinks and southwestern food, this trip deepened our relationship as aunt and nephew. Deborah and David are hardworking, smart, successful people––folks anyone would be lucky to have for relatives.

On our last night, David’s daughter Caitlin came for dinner with Alo, her husband, and Adalaide, their baby daughter. Caitlin and Alo were glowing and exhausted from their first few months of parenting, showing every sign that Adalaide is in good hands. She is a delightful baby, and was very kind to keep her cool while I held her for a few minutes

Adalaide and me

Adalaide and me

What a pleasure to encounter three generations in the same evening!

From left: Deborah, Caitlin, Adalaide, Alo, and David

From left: Deborah, Caitlin, Adalaide, Alo, and David

The following morning we drove north to Norwood, a tiny town in rural Colorado where my buddy Jesse is managing a veggie CSA for a small organic farm. I’ve been close with Jesse since high school, and have watched with delight as he’s morphed from a budding journalist into a full-fledged farmer. Contrasting my own scattershot dalliances with small-scale agriculture, Jesse is quickly becoming an expert in all things food-related. Jessie and I basked in his managerial competence, and were happy to help out with a few hours of weed-pulling.

Jesse (center) and his fellow farmers

Jesse (center) and his fellow farmers

Our tour of America was quickly drawing to a close, but we had two important visits still to make. The first was to my Grandma Elaine in La Quinta, CA. Elaine is Ma’s mother, and in recent years she has lost much of her memory and speech ability. But she still has a smile that can light up the room, and can squeeze a hand and hug with the best of them. I introduced her to Jessie and we told her we loved each other very much and would get married. Grandma welcomed Jessie to the family with courtesy and grace.

We were having so much fun that we forgot to snap a picture with Grandma, but we very much enjoyed looking at old pictures with her and watching a video about our family history.

Finally, we drove north once more, toward the familiar territory of the Bay Area. By pure chance, two of our best friends got married at City Hall on the day we’d planned to arrive back in San Francisco. We joined Jesse and Adam and their small wedding party for dinner at The Slanted Door. Have you ever seen two more handsome grooms?

Jesse and Adam, newlyweds

Jesse and Adam, newlyweds

Our lives in Humboldt would be much less lively and joyful without these two, and we wish them the best for their first year of marriage and all the ones to come. Jesse and Adam’s wedding dinner was the perfect way to end a trip full of friends, family, and all different kinds of love.

Conclusion: American Bloom

I like to have a few beers once or twice a week, but every now and again I feel a powerful need to get drunk. Properly drunk. This was my disposition on the evening we spent in Hot Springs, AR. While Jessie explored the town’s main drag, I set up shop on a bar stool at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery. While working my way through as many microbrews as I could stomach, I gazed out the window. All kinds of folks. Shapes, sizes, colors, expressions. The visual memories have acquired the fogginess of those forged in the throes of drink, but I can recall the feeling vividly. I was awestruck at the variability of the human body, and not just the ones parading down the street, but the totality of bodies I’d observed in weeks prior.

Human bodies follow a blooming pattern, like flowers. Our attributes extend, tighten, strengthen, overflow, wither, collapse. There’s no definite order, but certainly a trend. We’ve no choice but to display our state of bloom out in the open, better or worse, for all to see. And we live moment to moment with judgments made by our fellows, so eager to assess our American blossoms. Some states confer attention, or dignity. Others incur indifference, or spite.

And then there is another blooming, one not so easily seen. The internal blossom of love, whose potential lives in every breathing body. This bud can dance on the skin or bury itself in a dark corner. It is heedless of the body’s bloom, coming when and where it will. It cannot be confirmed through superficial sight.

Jessie and I encountered a variety of couples on our journey, from Jessie’s grandparents––married more than five decades––to dear friends basking in their first hours of union. New loves, old ones, grand and modest loves. America, we discovered, is home to a constantly regenerating wellspring of affection. And from the bloody bastion of each brain, our gaze reaches other bodies, not knowing where, or when, or how that river has flooded or abandoned them, bone dry. And so we speak.

Who are you? Where are you going? Who do you carry with you down the cracked sidewalk?