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Published: October 8th 2021
The bus is getting crowded because everyone is leaving town. That is the first line of a poem my mom wrote this spring during the height of the lockdown. We had just come through our own battles with the dreaded coronavirus, but unfortunately even though we had both now recovered everything around us was pretty much shut. The new normal was not normal. So we decided to plan on getting out of town some day in the distant future.
I was very eager to see how the rest of the country was handling the pandemic and inhuman lockdowns. Were other states less fearful than the denizens of our little corner of the world were? Did other places look more normal than our New York? Also, for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to travel around the United States in the run up to a national election and find out what the pulse of the country was. Finally, the time had come and on a grey October morning Mom and I loaded up my old car and headed south, bound for Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And walked off to look for America...
The trouble with living
in New York is that if you want to get anywhere south you have to deal with the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey traffic. It is always a nightmare! But on this day we were remarkably spared as there was nothing but uncluttered roads. Was this because people weren’t travelling because of the pandemic? Was this simply because it was a Sunday morning of a holiday weekend? We didn’t care. We simply continued on without a care in the world.
I thought it would be fun and informative to look for bumper stickers on the surrounding cars. How many for Biden? How many for Trump? This would give me an initial sense of where the country was at. However, already over an hour into our trip and nary a bumper sticker was to be seen. Maybe bumper stickers weren’t a thing anymore or maybe it demonstrated a lack of enthusiasm in general. But the election was less than a month away! Something felt amiss.
We had entered Pennsylvania and the driver, me, needed a bathroom break. Our family’s method for bathroom breaks on American road trips has always been to stop at a fast food restaurant, get
a drink/snack, use the facilities, and get back on the road. Unfortunately, this time due to Pennsylvania’s coronavirus protocols we discovered that all the fast food restaurants had been relegated to drive-through only. Uh-oh. This was going to put a real crimp in the urination part of the stopover. Slightly desperate and unrelieved we set the wheels back in motion and moved on.
I was heading back toward the highway, but to do this we had to pass through the small quaint town of Hamburg. It felt like stepping back to a simpler time tucked away in this hidden corner of Pennsylvania. Small homes all in a row and a real sense of community. There were posters all over town celebrating the hometown heroes, which seemed to include a lot of WWII veterans. American flags as well as Trump flags and signs were displayed from practically every single home on both sides of the narrow street.
Back near the highway we spotted a parking lot for a large gas station with a substantial convenience store set-up. They had to have accessible bathrooms here! As soon as I walked in I saw something I hadn’t seen for over six
months, a man walking around in public without a mask indoors. He wasn’t the only one either, in fact over half the people in there were bare faced and smiling. After so long without seeing this, it felt slightly strange but also so good at the same time. A little bit of normal was being returned to us. We bought sandwiches, chips and drinks and sat down for lunch at an empty table in the store. Bathroom facilities were also put to great use.
We drove on further down the highway. By the time we reached Virginia the skies had turned overcast and I was getting sleepy. When I felt my eyes drifting shut I knew it was time for a coffee. Luckily in Virginia the shops were fully open. We stopped at a Starbucks for a jolt of caffeine and another bathroom break. Later that night we got stuck in the rain and a 45 minute stand-still traffic jam. Afterwards, this led to me running up a steep hill alongside a truck pullout to relieve myself in the wind and the rain as truck headlights cut the darkness down below.
I had given up looking for bumper
stickers, but the tally at the end of the day was that Trump signs had outnumbered Biden signs by a 10 to 1 margin in the towns and along the roads. Our car finally pulled into Roanoke, our destination and the home to my alma mater, much later than expected. Hitting the pillow never felt so good.
* * * * *
I woke up in a town where I’d woken up in for four years of my life. Mom and I were planning a leisurely paced trip, so we had budgeted the whole day here to revisit old haunts in and around Roanoke College. The first stop was Mac and Bob’s, the local hangout, for a late brunch/lunch. Stepping through the door, I was hit by a thousand memories. Mostly of my friends and I entering for another Friday night’s entertainment and then stumbling back out after midnight being careful not to trip on that final oddly placed step.
We were served by a kind lady with a thick southern accent who was wearing a plastic face shield. Not everything was as I remembered it. I displayed the knowledge of a local by ordering the Chicken
Philly, a favorite of both our waitress and Roanoke College students of any era. As I drank my morning coffee I looked out the window and noticed the bland new courthouse building. I never noticed it before, but it made sense that it was there. Next to the prison and the grand old courthouse which had been converted into a college building for the history department. If I glimpsed hard enough, I thought I might still see my old professors sitting outside smoking cigars between classes.
Mom and I walked slowly toward campus, passing the old civil war statue celebrating the local boys who had gone off to fight for the Confederacy back in the 1860s. I remember being really taken with it as a freshman a million years ago. It felt so exotic and back then really made me feel like I was in the South. I was finally somewhere new and different! Now I contrasted that to the present where monuments like this had gotten all mixed up in the culture wars. Same place, different times.
Once on the campus proper I was able to look around at the ever gorgeous campus. Red brick paths cutting
through lush green lawns. Stately old buildings with the Appalachian Mountains looming closely in the background behind the clouds. Even though it was Columbus Day, there were still a few students wandering about. Some with masks, some without. It was all very relaxed. Some friendly students even passed by us and said hello. I laughed internally, thinking how much less suspicious I looked walking around with my kindly 80 year-old mom, rather than wandering around by myself as a large strange male. When I mentioned this to Mom, she said that little did they know that she was actually the one that they should worry about.
We passed my freshman year dorm. I spotted my old room on the corner. I remembered all those days hanging out there. Flash forward and here I was 25 years older. Time was colliding and I felt like I could reach out and touch those former times. We moved on to explore the newer section of campus with its recently built dormitories and athletic fields. Leaving the old behind for the new.
One building I really wanted to explore was the new athletic center and its basketball arena. I was unsure if
we would be able to go inside due to the college’s coronavirus protocols. I was content to just look at it from the outside, but Mom convinced me to at least give it a try. I’m glad she did because the doors were unlocked and no one inside to question us. The new basketball court was a marvel with a huge picture window at one end looking out towards the nearby green hills. Mom sat in the stands as I walked around and read the Hall of Fame plaques. Faces and names of a bygone era came flooding back. Down below a few members of the current team got some shots up. I thought back to the hours and hours I played on a court in this very location, now demolished and lost to time.
We finished the visit on a bench outside the college library. When a student walked by and saw us sitting there happily without our masks, she decided to take hers of as well. Behavior is indeed contagious. A nearby marker quoted Martin Luther. “This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing, not being, but becoming. We are not yet
what we shall be, but we are on the way.” The lifelong education and evolution of Tommy No Papers was still unfolding. Just be patient. I’m a work in progress. Note: This is the first entry of many that will detail the two American road trips I took last year. The thoughts come out of the notes I took along the way.
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