The Pendulum: A Coast-to-Coast US Road Trip

For Volume 33: Collective, one writer and photographer embarks on a coast-to-coast US road trip in search of what unites the divided states of America.

This article appears in Volume 33: Collective.

I moved to LA in 2017, on the same day that Trump was inaugurated. More acutely than ever, I could feel the country's tension and division. At times I have found it sickening, yet I'm still here and somewhat obsessed with it. It's the friction between the extremes I find so fascinating. The fight for change. A sense of hope.

Last year, I set off on a coast-to-coast road trip in an attempt to examine what unites this land of division. Covid had shut down most of the country. Over 15 million people were protesting after George Floyd was killed by police. On the horizon: the most controversial election in US history, followed by the storming of the Capitol.

Of course, none of these stories - or the ones that precede them - are one-dimensional. In travelling, I wanted to deepen my understanding of the US, to see it from different perspectives, to engage in those difficult conversations, those shared moments of enlightenment.

In ten weeks I covered 18,000km and 29 states, including the southwestern deserts, the Deep South, several eastern states, parts of the Midwest and the northwestern states, before looping back to my home in Venice, Los Angeles. I connected with friends old and new, friends of friends - my own extended collective - while making a conscious effort to explore struggles on the fringe of my normal life.

THE WEST

The lands of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and California are sacred. Outside major cities, there is space and stillness, something magical at play. It's tranquil. Healing. Certain communities work in harmony with the land, learning from generations of indigenous tribes, living resourcefully, responsibly.

Peppered with the native saguaro cactus, the vast plains of southern Arizona give way to Taos, New Mexico, where writer Alison Beckner and multidisciplinary artist Arianna Solare had invited me to stay on their renovated old school bus.

When I arrive, Arianna is holding a beer in one hand and putting the finishing touches on an outdoor compost loo with the other. She discovered Taos 17 years ago and had been inspired by its Earthship communities. As a performance artist in LA, she'd felt fatigued by the city and frustrated that she wasn't creating anything tangible, and so began the process of building a cob house from soil, sand and straw.

"When you have to collect water from the community well, and gather and chop firewood for the winter, it makes you consider your consumption," Arianna says. She's noticed more and more people choosing to escape city life, and plans to begin workshops on natural building. I ask if there is hope for humanity. "Humanity?" she looks at me, skeptical. "But the Earth? The Earth has survived so much. The Earth is strong. The Earth will prevail."

THE SOUTH

The south is intoxicating. Its landscape is lush and alluring. Its food is heavy and comforting. Its people are soulful and warm. On my way to New Orleans, I pass the Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation in Thibodaux - its rows of old quarters an eerie reminder of people once enslaved here. In the city, heavy tropical rains and lockdown make what is normally the most vibrant place feel gloomy.

Savannah is eye-wateringly beautiful, with all the usual charm of NOLA but a slower pace. Here, I eat a perfect biscuit from Back in the Day Bakery - its owner Cheryl is the great-great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman, who was also a baker.

My host in Atlanta is Mirabai, an Iranian woman I'd met over pizza at Santa Fe's El Rey Court. She had "couch-surfing debt" and offered me her spare room; in exchange I had to try her Persian rice and proofread some work. I explore the city's surprisingly green neighbourhoods by bike, stopping for vegan nourishment at Tassili's Raw Reality. Billed as a "Black mecca", Atlanta feels radical. Its Black leaders and history of activism represent the change many of us want to see.

Downtown, preparations are underway for the funeral of statesman and civil-rights activist John Lewis. It was to take place at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached. Scrawled across a memorial site, I read Lewis's words: "Get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete." Five months later, I'd reflect on this when Georgia flipped to a Democratic majority.

Near Mobile, Alabama, I meet Vincent, a friend of a friend, at his family's home. He is a young writer transitioning into life in New York, and had previously lived in Atlanta. We connect over a shared birthday, mutual appreciation of the countryside and a desire to expand our horizons in cities where self-expression and creativity is celebrated. He acknowledges Atlanta's progressiveness around race, but tells me he had found his true community in its pre-Covid parking-lot parties. On the dancefloor, the intersections of race, gender and sexuality transcended political and social agendas. ••

A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

THE EAST

Literally and metaphorically, the East Coast makes me feel closer to home - my UK home - although I notice I have become sensitive towards the biting humour, impatience, cynicism and aggressive driving of New Yorkers. I used to have a thicker skin. "Live in New York City once but leave before it makes you hard," wrote Mary Schmich in Wear Sunscreen. "Live in northern California once but leave before it makes you soft. Travel."

New York marked the end of the road and beginning of the journey back to LA. Before heading upstate to the Catskills and Hudson Valley, I bumped into an old London connection on Prince Street, mid pizza slice. It's always comforting to hear your name called out in Manhattan.

Philadelphia is a longstanding favourite of mine, but I also visit Baltimore and Pittsburgh, cities where red-brick terraced houses, ramshackle alleyways, blue-collar workers and strong Irish ancestry remind me of former years living in northern England.

Voluntary work for the Innocence Project, a non-profit seeking to reform the criminal justice system, took me to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. The streets are still boarded up from protests a month ago. Like Atlanta, the city feels charged, and I think of the 1980s riots in my birthplace, Liverpool.

I was commissioned by an attorney in Charlottesville to photograph three men who had been exonerated from their supposed crimes. Rojai, 41, just four years my senior, was arrested for murder in his last year of high school. He had been out of prison for less than a month. He shows me his old school, the detention centre and a viewpoint that he used to frequent with his brother before he was killed when Rojai was 14.

Rojai has missed out on so much: adolescence, technology, the chicken-pox vaccination, starting a family. Yet he talks about God, or some higher being, and expresses gratitude for what had happened to him, fearing he could have been involved in drugs or killed had he not been imprisoned.

A police car is parked alongside the detention centre and Rojai approaches, explaining our presence. The officer had grown up in the same community, they are the same age and the men discuss people they know who are now inside or have been killed. The officer had joined the forces aged 20, his motivation to make a difference in his community. While he understands the protests, he asks me to consider the Black-on-Black violence he has witnessed in his community. "It isn't just about police brutality," he claims.

Rojai admits this is the first time he's spoken to an officer on this level. They shake hands and the officer wishes Rojai all the best, telling him he hopes that he'll be able to start his own family now he's out. When it's my turn to hug Rojai goodbye, I feel grateful for our time together, his infectious personality and the conversation I'd just heard. He promises to look me up in LA and suggests I obtain a "camcorder" so I can start telling these stories properly.

On a musical pilgrimage to Chicago and Detroit, I honour the artists, DJs and genres that have influenced me - Motown, house, techno, hip-hop - guided by messages from friends recommending record shops and people to meet along the way.

I try to find Moodyman's house to take a picture for a friend when a stranger, noticing my California plates, approaches, asking what I'm doing. "Kenny's house? You drove past it." We spend the next ten minutes comparing the music scenes in London, LA and Detroit. He likes dancing.

I meet Antonia here, another friend of a friend who says she wants to take me to "the slip", and for a moment my heart leaps, thinking it's a music venue. "No, it's a swimming spot," she tells me. "Only locals know about it." "You can swim in Detroit?" I am over the moon regardless. It's a bit like Berlin, where artists and musicians flock for cheap rent and creative space. Winters are bleak. Summers are fun. Underground parties are common. Both cities have survived extreme difficulties and hardship.

Later that evening, I make a social-media faux pas when a friend forwards me an event flier on Instagram and I accidentally reply to a DJ. Noticing we have several mutual friends, we meet up. Meftah, Antonia and I spend the evening at Motor City Wine, him discussing the music he produces and how he ended up working with the revered Detroit-based DJ Theo Parrish.

"Talking about music here is like talking about the weather. It's everything," he says. "Music is ritual, it's medicine. The highest form of salvation." He expresses gratitude for mentors such as Theo and Kenny alongside other independent artists, explaining that teamwork is necessary in an often cut-throat industry. We agree that a shared taste in music can be the basis for understanding and trust. It's reassuring how easily it unites.

THE NORTH

A friend, Serena, a fellow Brit and nature lover, joins me for the last leg of my journey. We camp and hike through some of America's most astonishing national parks: the mountains around Grand Teton; Yellowstone's myriad colours; Bryce Canyon's almost Martian hoodoos. But it's the reflections of the Rockies in the still lakes of Montana's Glacier National Park that really capture our hearts.

It's a long journey from Yellowstone to Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the most northerly points of Montana before reaching Canada, so we spend a night in the once powerful mining town of Butte. As we arrive, a freak snow shower hits, a refreshing sensation after the 47°C desert temperatures. We take cover in the red glow of the Silver Dollar Saloon, chatting with the bar owner and his friend Steve, two jazz aficionados, independent-radio presenters and more than a match for our British banter.

They direct us to Zulu Summer, a 2019 documentary which tells the story of a Zulu Prince and his tribe discovering Butte via its KBMF radio station and travelling more than 16,000km from South Africa to spend a summer there. It's an uplifting tale of two very different communities enriching each others' lives - the very thing I want to find from this journey. I couldn't help but think what a different world we might be living in if we spent a little more time listening to and learning from each other.

During the last few weeks of the trip, I try to consolidate my experiences. At times, the journey has been exhilarating, overwhelming, deeply troubling. Sometimes I had questioned why I lived in such a polarised, volatile country. But running from the problem didn't feel satisfactory. Isn't it important to try and be a part of the solution? The election result in November brought hope. But there is much work to be done on an individual level, too. To travel is to experience the world from different perspectives, but you needn't stray far from your own community to show compassion.

On the road, nature had been a teacher of sorts; I found comfort and clarity in the moments I stopped to wild swim or hike. In difficult times, it was a place for peace and reflection. It is my belief that, at our very core, we are all connected, to each other, to the elements, to Earth. A line from Chinese poet Du Fu comes to me as we drive homewards through the mountains. "Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure."

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