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

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

For Vol. 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 Vol. 33:

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

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


The lands of
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 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
, 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

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


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,

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

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
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.


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
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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