There were things that didn’t make it onto the camera roll. There were 21st century teepees with signs that read Jeronimo! and signs that read Authentic!!! Indian Crafts. We passed many signs promising many differently punctuated authenticities. We passed signs for “Palin for America” and other signs for things “for America.” We were driving through Arizona the day the congresswoman, the judge, and the little girl were shot in Tuscon, and knowing this colored everything. We listened to talk radio. We felt appalled.
We passed a ghost town in Devil’s Canyon, Arizona. There was a sign for mountain lions that pointed to an empty corral. All the doors were off their hinges—imagine. A corral for mountain lions. We passed red mesas striped with conifers, sugared with snow. We passed hills that resembled cubist paintings of hills. We passed miles of flat half-frozen grassland, waist-high grass gilded silver, vast fields of tinsel that met the sky dancing.
Is this the heartland? my mother kept asking me, and when we passed, somewhere in Texas, a towering corrugated metal cross that claimed through its signage to be the largest for some miles around, I said yes. We must be.
I had somehow allowed myself to imagine that, when writing about the trip, I would be able to avoid using words like heartland, words that mean the nation’s blood pumps somewhere other than where I’m from, where I’m known. I do know that out of fear or shame or both, I ripped the “Yes We Can” stickers off my true blue car before venturing into what my mother kept wanting me to say was the heartland. I’m telling you, she delighted in using the word, and I don’t have to tell you that I had my suspicions.
“I’m seeing the real America,” she really said, and gleefully. You could only really call it glee. When she saw horses, or cows, or the welcome signs to New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, even when she saw that big stupid cross, she felt happy. It made me want to claw at the parts of me that can’t even think the word heartland without irony–that deep, corrosive, soul-melting irony that becomes part of your whole life approach when you come up in LA or New York or even Chicago, that slick, cool cynicism.
I did not meet a single cool, slick person on the road. The places we drove through seemed, if anything, profoundly and determinedly uncool. But every person I met seemed worth knowing, somehow, everyone I encountered showed me some small kindness, and I found no affectations evidenced anywhere, I mean anywhere, unless you count courtesy, which I don’t.
But then you flip the radio to the talk stations and feel horrified and appalled and cynical all over again, and grateful, so grateful, to have ripped the political stickers off your California car, and you sneer, back to square one, you sneer and maybe, if you’ve learned anything at all, you feel appalled at yourself for sneering.
Because you are in the heartland. And maybe what is meant by heartland is better understood by the gut than by the mind—just as the towering crosses, the explosive anger of right-wing talk hounds, the vast emptiness of the land in northern Texas or Oklahoma make more sense to the gut than to the mind. Because this is land that summons up fear and awe and hunger for the sacred, and these are times when it is becoming ever more necessary and more difficult for a person to establish her relevance, and maybe this, this hunger, is felt more deeply and angrily and despairingly in the empty parts of the country that people like me, people like us, are only ever passing through.