The Impulse to Hit the Road
Election Day is today. Fears are at an all-time high. Tensions are raised but nobody is sure if the call to war is going to find movement. The present feeling of ideological tension just needing a little spark to flame a civil war has been expressed by millions of Americans — as though this is the only thing that we can all agree on.
With this in mind, I decided that I couldn’t wait until after the election to put myself square in the presence of the great monuments of our great country. I have countless indictments against our government, nonetheless, I want to defend it and take a wide view to see its history and its greatness.
I felt on Friday morning that I needed to take that drive to Washington DC. I debated with myself about it over breakfast, but I truly just saw myself there and thought, this is happening. I started working my way out the door around 10am. It was impulsive, so the things I lacked became self-evident later. I didn’t brush my teeth for 36 hours, for example.
I drove more than 400 miles, from my home in North Philadelphia, to Washington DC, back to Baltimore, then to Gettysburg, then Harrisburg. The drive to a destination, for me, always needs much more time than the GPS tells me. I like stopping. I like knowing what there is on the road. I like to master my routes.
I can drive from Seattle to San Diego without a map, and I could take three routes doing it. The East Coast is my new frontier. Part of the excitement of living in Philadelphia is the positioning: The great historic cities are all a day’s drive from home.
The American history of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, they all began long before Washington DC. Philadelphia was founded as a British colony 108 years before DC, in 1682. It was the city that served as the nation’s capital in the beginning.
Living in Philly as a transplant from the West coast I think helps me appreciate the deep history of this nation with Philadelphia as the real epicenter of it. Before DC, this is where laws were written. This is where stocks were traded. This is where currency was minted (and still is). It was the manufacturing and distribution hub of the country well into the Twentieth Century.
As long ago as the battle at Gettysburg may be, it is relatively modern history. The revolutionary war could be viewed as a civil war, as the ties to Europe were much stronger and there was no national identity to speak of. They had to finally break with the kingdoms that ruled the colonies in order to set a course for self-governance.
The Americas were first colonized in the Fifteenth Century. Global positions of domination change over time. Portugal is quite the example, having pioneered much of the New World and seafaring power of Europe in those pivotal year, it is today considered almost third world. It’s like comparing Yahoo to Google.
Declaring independence from the dictatorship of those kingdoms was a revolutionary act that set Europe on a course toward self-governance. I have never seen a time when I am more concerned that this course could be going in reverse from Europe and Asia toward America.
This country does in fact have a long period of evolution to look at, some excellent accomplishments that have lasting positive effects for the world. The contradictions lie all over the place too. The whole displacement of indigenous peoples, the protracted dominance of slavery as an economic model, the subjugation of the will of the people in other nations to satisfy the needs of private corporations, and the abuse of intelligence agencies in the name of national security. This is the kind of stuff that was in the back of my mind as I did my tour. This government has essentially become what it was founded to protect itself from. This ironically happened just as we unified as a people toward universal voting rights and ended the era of the state-regulated second-class citizen.
The truth of this only evolved to reinforce that I care deeply about maintaining our union with the embrace of that darkness as part of the growth and our character as a people. It is the only way to heal and carry ourselves in the light of the best intentions of the people, which is self-governance.
Getting to D.C.
The intention of this trip was just to see those monumental sites in DC at the National Mall. Once I hit the road, however, I just wanted to keep moving. It was a solo road trip for peace, trying to find appreciation for the United States of America in my heart, to embrace whatever outcome there may be this week, then take the fight back to the power, not the people.
I like driving. I like thinking on the road. I like taking a break from my home life, taking hours at the wheel to compress my thoughts. I like highways and small towns and counters at diners and bars. I like synchronicity and meeting random people.
I arrived in DC a bit late, I knew I had to hustle to make the most of the sunlight. When I travel, it’s about walking. If I drive into a place, I find free street parking, typically, and walk through neighborhoods to get to the destination. Not every city works like this, but that is the spirit of it: Walking through the place to get a sense of its genuine character.
I underestimated that city in many ways. It is much more dense and bustling than I expected of it. It has very recently gentrified. Her bad neighborhoods are pretty much wiped out, and that means displaced and relocated, ie gentrified. The trend to colonize and displace those of lesser means continues as a tradition in this country.
There is no avoiding the fact that everything we have built in DC is a monument to genocide. That is the only way that it could have been constructed. The symbolism of conquest becomes more apparent when you are standing at the World War II monument in relation to the reflective pool in relation to Abraham Lincoln looking on toward the Capitol buildings with his massive shoe extending just slightly over the lip of the pedestal, as you stand below it.
Walking from Mt. Vernon through Chinatown and then Georgetown University law campus, there was a totally empty outdoor Covid-19 testing and lab station setup. I checked online, it was supposed to be open until 4pm, but it was only 3:30. I spotted the capitol building down New Jersey Avenue. I headed straight for it.
The United States Capitol and Supreme Court are across the street from one another. They are massive structures. It’s a lot of walking. The Supreme Court is at the east end of the National Mall, so I turned around and headed for the Washington Monument. You can enjoy a lot of views along the way. The Smithsonian building is a tremendous walking experience.
Pushing on while trying not to spend much time on any of the wonders surrounding me all the time, I had the treat of walking through a marital engagement, a man proposing to a woman with the Washington Monument in the backdrop. I breezed passed them saying, “It looks like you two just got engaged!” He replied, “Thanks!” because was nervous as hell. He was barely present but at the same time totally exhilarated. I tagged that with, “Good luck!” I wish to hell that I never said that. Congratulations were in order!
I was engaged to Kate exactly four years ago. I realized immediately that I had a twinge of bitterness in my heart, as I am a single man today. Love isn’t luck. It is careful work.
There is dimensionality to the Washington Monument that doesn’t come across on television or in photos. There is a vast field between the monument and the reflecting pool, which is designed to reflect the monument. There is even another monument between them that I never really noticed on TV or photos, because it disappears below the line of sight from Lincoln’s steps.
That monument is the World War II pool at the east end of the pool. There are dual structures, one is labeled Atlantic, the other is Pacific. On a side note, I realized upon seeing these columns that the Atlantic ocean refers to Atlantis. Weird. How did I miss that? Anyway, this monument is a huge structure and would be a site independent of the whole. In the whole, it is merely an adornment.
What clicked more meaningfully to me was the connection of these structures to the reflecting pool and Abraham Lincoln and how these huge spaces shrink and become a unified image under the gaze of Lincoln at his monument. I haven’t researched enough of the symbolism of it to say what it’s all about, but for me, it feels powerful, meant to continuously reinforce the power of the United States.
Lincoln is revered, I think, because we were in the midst of intense westward expansion during his time. The steadfast belief that took hold was the so-called manifest destiny of the American people to command both oceans. With the grandeur and purpose of spreading democracy and Christianity, the destiny was manifested under brute force, in an ends defeats means kind of philosophy. I would observe that this belief remains to this day and ultimately represents the same trend line all the way to Iraq and beyond.
Lincoln essentially became the sole founding father of our modern nation. This is why he is so greatly revered, and it’s all in that pool. You may feel the energy of the triumph in the conflict in these monuments but it cannot be separated from the suffering. Lincoln caused extraordinary suffering and destruction by maintaining the Union. It could have been a peaceful secession, but his rule of law and force set a direction for this country that amounts to a single nation controlling all of the waterways of the world by the end of World War II.
Pitting Power Against Progress
There is beauty in this ugliness. First of all: We have this incredible land. We have this vast connectivity from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Abraham Lincoln was the man that held it all together. This shit was on his shoulders. That deserves some respect.
I’m troubled by the brutality of war and power. I have always been a peace activist. We do not have enough anti-war rallies anymore. We lost our steam in 2003 and never got it back.
Standing under the boot of Lincoln in that moment feels like that of the boot of executive power. It feels violent in this whole context. Now, I can look at it other ways. I would say also that his foot extending off the pedestal brings him back to the level of a Man, from the position of idol. The National Park Service says that the monument depicts Fasces as a continuum of leaders that work toward the liberation, not subjugation, of their people. Funny how it is also the root word for fascist. And funny how Lincoln had to use brutal fascistic force to maintain the union.
Leading to this moment of reflection with Lincoln, I have firmly decided that I want to maintain our union. I don’t want Texas or California or any other State to secede. Despite all of our brutal past, there is verifiable evolution toward justice. It gets tricky every step of the way. It definitely feels like we’re at the breaking point of another major step in the wrong direction.
Without trying to be precise about it, this nation was stitched together largely by Christian zealots and the only people participating in democracy were property owners, and pretty much the only property owners were white men. The civil war forced the people to take a side, even if Lincoln used slaves as his pawn to win the union, which has economic interests at heart just the same, he still took that step versus the maintenance of slavery.
The following hundred years were marked with continuous upsets to the white male status quo until finally, universal voting rights were established. The period that has followed looks like the gradual disentanglement of white maleness from the elite power hierarchy. There are absolutely more wealthy and powerful non-white non-male people in the country than ever.
The conflicts in society fomenting and mounting up today are totally connected to the same thread of oppression that also tells the story of progress. The specific goals are getting looser and the demands more confusing. For example, non-whites in the 1960s were advocating for equal access to goods and services, the end to segregation, and the assurance of voting rights. That is a clearcut goal. Self-governance is meant to pick up from there. Today, it’s a little different. The system is unfair today due to classist structures that were waged against racial groups, but were redirected entirely to income-based groups. Racist structures are still haunting communities post-segregation, so the problems overlap between racial groups.
The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement are shared with a huge level of support with whites. The obvious thing is police brutality, a scourge that takes all kinds of lives. Disproportionate it may be, it is still a shared problem. What people don’t understand, there are factions amidst that protest movement that are ideologically marxist, they don’t agree with classic liberalism, and would be willing to rewrite the constitution.
At one time, all whites were better off than all non-whites. That is absolutely not true today. When slavery gave way and black folks entered the same status as the Irish, there were race riots over competition for work and land. Famously in South Philadelphia, after the Civil War, the Irish waged war on freed slaves, even though they shared a common systemic oppressor. They did not come together to fight against the same forces, they fought each other. Not having equal rights and protection under the law, they took their frustrations on each other. We are not doing well to avoid this cycle today.
If whites and non-whites are fighting amongst each other about the same class struggles, then the fascists have already won. They don’t want us getting together to solve shared problems.
Leaving the Lincoln memorial, I continued onto the White House. I had just enough sunlight to catch it. Much to my dismay, I began to see an alarming degree of fortification happening across DC. I really wanted to look across the lawn and wonder if Trump or any “important” figures were in there. But there is a barrier running all along the fence line of the White House right now. You can only see the upper half of the building.
This was a sad end to my walking tour. As I headed back toward Mount Vernon, enjoying the old architecture splitting up contemporary glass jawns along the way, I noticed that everyone was boarding up their restaurants, hotels, and retail shops. Generally, the police presence in DC is high, but I could sense it was elevated, the giveaway being that for a substantial radius surrounding the White House, businesses are digging in and sealing up.
If only I had known, I would have launched boardupyourbusiness.com in February. I could have made a killing on this pandemic and civil unrest, specializing in boarding up shit.
I wandered around DC looking for a good bar and food. I was annoyed with everything. It’s like Portland, it’s all designer with either chic patina or bold glossy finishes. I don’t like that. I like diners and old Irish pubs. So I pressed back to Baltimore. I ate fast food.
Camping in Gettysburg
Baltimore is a jaunt away from DC. I parked right at the peak of their central monument at Mount Vernon. I then walked up and down Charles looking for action. I go on intuition. Turns out this is a major connective nightlife street. There was live music going on, something I hadn’t seen since March. For a Halloween Weekend, however, it was very quiet. I had one beer and decided it would be smart to get a room between there and Gettysburg so I could have a good start that morning.
I did what I often do, which is to drive around being dissatisfied with rates, then I sleep in my car or stay up all night. Or both, I stay up trying to sleep. That’s what happened. I rested my eyes in the freezing cold of my car in Gettysburg. I couldn’t bring myself to spend $80 and up. We’re talking about cheap motels. They weren’t cutting me any deals, because they were all well booked. I was happy to see that, just for the sake of economic activity. I wondered if people were traveling out of the cities in fear of riots, especially from places like DC.
It was cold. It was dumb, attempting this without a blanket. My mom always told me to keep a blanket in the car. I laid there imagining the hardships of soldiers in Gettysburg. I imagined them weary and freezing in their encampments. Then I saw that the battle lasted for three days in July. Their hardships were, at the least, warm at night.
At 6am, I headed for the nearest open diner. Covid hours have down stepped the 24/7 joints to more standard hours. The second diner of choice, in Hunterstown, was the one that was actually open. But it was top choice in retrospect. Perfect for sitting at the counter and listening to the locals yak, joining in a bit myself, as I like to do in diners. The food was good. The banter was ridiculous.
Everything about Gettysburg challenged my expectations. I never researched the town, I just imagined it to be a tiny, old time boring place, crafted for tourist expectations. The battlefield, I imagined to be a relatively small field by modern scope, that you could easily survey from a single position. And at that point there would be a plaque, a monument, and the standard informational presentations you would expect from an historical site.
Gettysburg is a modern little college city, dense at its center, but it becomes rural very quickly. This town has the most Biden/Harris signs I have seen per capita. The place is full of those little artsy boutiques and coffee shops. I doubt anyone in that diner voted for Biden, just a few miles outside town. The television ran Fox News. But none of them talked about politics.
I can feel the national tension today in the City of Gettysburg. It is a microcosm of our urban and rural divide like I have never seen, because it is such a compact urban area that the same people passionately opposed to one another are also forced to cooperate. The people of Philadelphia don’t have to deal with the rural folk, and likewise. It’s a matter of scale.
Gettysburg National Military Park is a sprawling area larger than the town itself. There are positions that can survey large areas, but even the highest points, like Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill, cannot take the whole area into view.
The constancy of military units occupying this area and the intense clashes unfolding there is effectively realized by the seeming endless trail of inscribed grand monuments to represent each battalion and squadron and individual leaders in the war. The vastness of death is clear, imagining instead of these stone blocks, a horrifying pile of bodies that would involve a reconnaissance and burial effort that would easily outlast the length of the battle. Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address” happened at the dedication of the national cemetery that November, four months after the battle.
To imagine a contemporary civil war given the number of assault rifles in this country, the amount of ammo, the kind of house-to-house fighting that would result in constant quagmires in cities like Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, where territories can easily be fragmented up into factions, is to imagine the devastation of these historic sites. The same way that Syria became a proxy war of terrorist groups funded by governments, the conflicts here would be tied to outcomes desired by other nations like China and Russia.
We are certainly in a make or break moment in this country. With or without a President Trump to worry about, the leadership and the political body that is meant to serve us has become so totally corrupted that most people are not excited with whoever wins the election. There is some extraordinary enthusiasm for Trump and I would rather tap into that than fight it.
When I was protesting the George W. Bush administration with as much intensity that people have for Trump today, I remember this girl I liked that I was trying to date who was hippyish and going to Cal Arts suggested that a more effective way to reach him might be to send some flowers. I thought that was dumb. I get that now.
People believe they are fighting with Trump for all kinds of liberties that are directly under attack by people like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The exact same thing can be said of those who feel attacked by Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Everybody is correct about this. None of them have our best interests at heart. Choosing a side and defending one piece of shit against another is not the solution.
There are values to both the right and left that make this country a very special place. The crisis in our whole social system is leading to the collateral damage of this nation’s spirit, its purpose, its economic power, and will ultimately lead to the failure of our military power. Public morale is a national crisis. People feel used, and lied to, and they point the finger at one another.
The project of self-governance, allowing ourselves to love who we love, worship how we worship, speak what we believe, and defend these rights and our property against the tyranny of a corrupt state, by force, is what is at stake when we turn against one another.
In the same way that I could never have understood the vastness of the battle at Gettysburg without going to the battlefield, we are going to sorely underestimate the despair and destruction that will come with a contemporary civil war.
If that occurs, there is no way that The United States will survive and continue the progress it has made in terms of bringing about a nation of civil rights and liberties, economic mobility, and peacemaking in the world. Most likely, Europe and Asia will interfere in our domestic matters and prolong the civil war until staggering lives are lost, and at least they can come out on top and negotiate a reconstruction deal that would divide us into Eurasia. China would probably dominate the West Coast. Canada would move into the heartland. The Northeast and parts of the South would go to Europe. America would move into Texas, absorbing parts of the South.
To me, preserving the manifestation of this nation’s culture from coast to coast is a worthwhile act of peace and democracy. It is the only way we can maintain that continuity.
From a simple, selfish point of view, I love being able to drive from coast to coast as an American. I don’t want to need my passport to visit California. It would break my heart.
Today, the nation will be tested. I hope that I don’t have to flee the city. I hope nobody riots. I hope it comes to pass and we learn to elect better leaders and challenge whoever is in power. War is not inevitable. If we choose to, we can evolve yet again.
Regardless of who is in the White House, we have unfathomable challenges to deal with. This nation cannot be so belligerent in its foreign policy. We need the kind of diplomacy that brings about mutually beneficial trade deals that can lead to lasting peace and economic prowess. The people of this country cannot survive with endless debt from health and education costs. Police forces cannot go on with this oppositional relationship to the community they are sworn to protect. Inherently classist structures cannot remain standing lest we continue a kind of economic racial segregation that leads again back to the entanglement of education and policing that leads to ignorance which leads to the enabling of globally tyrannical behavior.
The knot is indeed badly tangled. But I’m one of those people that takes the cord and straightens it out, then I coil it up correctly so that it won’t knot up again. That’s what democracy is supposed to be: routine maintenance.
We have no real honest choice but to accept the results of this election and get back to work on correcting the course of this country. In theory, that is what our constitution, the basis for our system, is meant to do: self-correct.
I truly just skimmed the surface of Gettysburg because I wanted to get home by the evening and it would be a long drive. I also wanted to see Harrisburg again, almost just to complete the patriotic ritual, to visit the capitol city of Pennsylvania, a state that is today considered a battleground for the White House, a state that I have deep ancestral ties to, a state that cradled the birth of this nation and has contributed incredibly to the social and economic progress of this country. It also acts as a conservative point of resistance. It is a diverse place.
The media is telling us that Pennsylvania is the battleground state of 2020. I would believe it. I hope we do not host another Gettysburg. Businesses are boarding up all over Philly, partly out of fears of riots related to the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. last week. Not a great lead-in to the election for Philly, but the police just keep blasting rounds off at the wrong time.
I believe that if we can avoid civil war, then we can become a much stronger people. I fear that violent clashes across major cities would mark the end of the tradition of self-governance forever in this country, as we have already given up civil liberties in the name of national security. Such clashes would make it permanent.
My vote is that we don’t do that.