I’d like to take a break from the regularly scheduled trip updates for what has become an increasingly important message.

When I explain to people that I am taking a solo road trip around the country, I am often met with professions of kind jealousy and awe. They think it’s amazing. What a great opportunity. They wish they could do it. After so long on the road, such sentiments are getting harder and harder to hear, culminating in one particular sentence I heard recently. I was talking with a friend of a friend, explaining the journey, and she said, “You’re so lucky to be given the opportunity.”

Normally I smile and nod, but something about this phrasing made me stop completely. “I wasn’t given the opportunity.” I told her. “I made it.”

To hear me talk now about the grand adventure and taking a hiatus from my job, it does seem like luck. It seems like good fortune. After all, it is very far from the current experience of most people. But this didn’t just fall into my lap. My boss, nice guy that he is, didn’t walk up to me one day, throw $10,000 on my desk and say, “Your work has been really top notch recently, how would you like a four month vacation?”

I began this journey more than three years ago, not long after I graduated college. The place I was working at the time was a good company and I was being paid fairly. The business was successful but small, and there were many people ahead of me in line for the only real position of advancement available. I had money and health care and it was easy to get a day or two off to celebrate my birthday or take a weekend trip up to Victoria, BC. It was a fun place to work. A comfortable place to work. But I had seen where the road of comfort-seeking leads, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful I would end up stuck in a job that was good but not great, with no realistic potential for things to magically get better.

Long Road LandscapeI can’t tell you how the idea of circumnavigating the country got stuck in my mind. Just an interesting concept and a bit of wanderlust I suppose. I looked at my comfortable job. It hadn’t been easy to get to this point. For several months before I was hired I had been working four jobs at once, all of them bad. The memory of that time would stay with me, I knew it, and constantly convince me that it wasn’t worth it to change. It wasn’t worth it to take a chance. And the more time that passed, it would only get worse. It would get worse because it would get better. I would get a raise. I would get a better apartment. I would establish regular interactions with friends. I would build and build and build until what I had made was so meticulously and slowly built that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it down.

So I began to build something else instead. I built a trip. I built a grand, life-changing adventure. I opened up a new savings account in a separate bank and began funneling all excess money to it. And I do mean all. I stopped eating out almost entirely. I brought my lunch to work every day. I subscribed to frugality blogs and learned to make things at home for myself. I went for two years without buying any new clothes. When I did buy new clothes, it was because I had lost 25 pounds and none of my pants fit. Even then, I spent a month with a belt cutting into my hips trying to hold up my baggy clothes before I realized it was making me sick to my stomach.

Honestly, it wasn’t that hard. With a steady income and a goal in mind, you’d be amazed how quickly the savings can pile up. Before I knew it I had double what I was hoping to save, plus several months of expenses in case I had to quit my job. And that was the real sacrifice I was willing to make. It’s not hard to make your lunch every day. It is hard to voluntarily step into uncertainty and discomfort. But I had a plan: I would tell my work that I was leaving for four months, and if they didn’t want me back when I returned, I would simply find a new job. And I knew it might be terrible. I knew the job market was awful. But I knew the monstrous, comfortable future than lay before me if I wasn’t willing to take a chance.

When I was asked to interview for another company a year before I was set to leave, I had another chance to back down. By that point, the old comfortable job wasn’t so great anymore, and I was anxious to leave. I wanted this new job, and I knew demanding up front that I be allowed four months off a year after starting was a risk. They might decide I wasn’t worth it and not hire me. At that point, only two people knew about my plans for the trip. It wasn’t too late to back down. But I didn’t. I told the new company about my plans and that if they weren’t okay with that, they shouldn’t hire me. But they did hire me. I wasn’t given four months off. I insisted on it.

Route 101It’s important to remember the role luck plays in our lives. It’s important to know that fortune, both good and bad, is often out of our control. One of my old college professors once told me “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” I am certainly lucky. I am lucky for being white, for being a U.S. citizen, for being born into a stable and loving family. But I’m not lucky for traveling the United States. I worked for that. And the work was largely mental. All the good fortune that made this trip possible could have been used to create a very comfortable, stable, awful existence. And it would have been much easier to build.

I don’t say this to get credit. When people respond to me as though this experience magically fell into my lap, I’m not mad that they think I didn’t work for it. I mad that they think they can’t do the same. I’m mad that people think I’m special or different. I get called brave all the time. I would say about half the people I explain the trip to tell me I’m brave. And for awhile I was sure I wasn’t, because I knew that the world wasn’t as scary as we had made it out to be. I knew, as Ann Friedman put it, that it was foolish to behave “as if every national park and Sonic Drive-In were little more than clubhouses for rapists and murderers.”

Traveling around the country by myself is not inherently brave. Deciding that such an adventure means enough to me that I’m willing to risk going back to cleaning houses and holding a sign on the sidewalk outside of Discount Guns, that is brave. And it is so much harder to make that choice. It is hard to choose discomfort. It is a very deliberate and conscious decision. I made a big decision with this trip, and it never seemed so small as it did the moment I stood at my apartment door, looking back one last time to see if I forgot anything. At that moment, the moment right before departure, all true risks had already been taken. Now all I had to do was drive.

It’s the secret of the ten-year-overnight-success. Sometimes we only see the end result of hard work, and it looks like luck. It’s not. I’m not a big believer in the bootstrap idea that everyone has equal access to equal opportunity. We are all dealt a different hand, and not always a fair one. But I worry that plenty of people go through life holding on to a decent hand, waiting for a better one to appear. I worry that people live the life their parents lived just because it’s familiar. I worry that people get married and have kids just because it seems like the thing they’re supposed to do. I worry that people stay in awful jobs because they are just barely happy enough to keep going to work. I’ve seen it. And I don’t want to be it. And that means risk. That means building big, less stable things. And it means smiling while everyone tells you you’re brave, when you just want to yell back,

So are you.Katrina Watching the Sunrise

Vicksburg, Also Known As the Key

Memorial Leans ForwardI like to think that I made a solid effort to be interested in Vicksburg National Military Park.

The town of Vicksburg is located on the Mississippi River, and was one of the last Confederate towns to fall in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln called it “the key,” or so I gathered from the eight or so times I read or heard the same Lincoln quote about Vicksburg being the key while I was on the park grounds. After an initial, unsuccessful attack, General Grant laid siege to Vicksburg until the Confederate troops were forced to surrender. The park covers a huge section of land surrounding the town, and is apparently one of the best marked battlefields in the country, with several hundred (or was it thousand?) markers and memorials.

I arrived right as the park was opening at 8AM. I watched the introductory film, looked at the visitor’s center exhibits, and began my 16-mile drive around the park. Normally I’m a big fan of war memorials, because they tend to involve a lot of interesting symbolism. But there can be a deadening effect if you see too many at once, especially because most of the Vicksburg memorials are for individual units. All they say is the name of the unit, when they existed, and occasionally the names of those who died. The memorials are on stone plaques and pillars, decorative enough to lose their austere simplicity but not fancy enough to inspire awe. The memorials were added over the course of many years as people recovered from the war, and include one large remembrance for each state that lost soldiers at Vicksburg (which is pretty much every state that existed at the time). There are explanatory signs as well, but they quickly began to all sound the same to me. “On (date) the (numbered regiment) under the command of (officer name), charged up this hill, dug a trench, and/or fired canons at (numbered regiment) of the (opposing force). (Outcome).”

IllinoisI don’t mean to speak ill of the dead or belittle their sacrifice, but a monument to a siege really hammers home the deep seeded stupidity of war. Like at the World War I museum, I look at the old canons and ironclad ships and artillery shells and I don’t feel that weird sense of nostalgia you get when looking at an old-timey bicycle or printing press. I just see a bunch of young guys dying of infection in ditches because a bunch of old guys were arguing in congress. I understand the reasoning that some problems (like slavery) are so huge that they must be solved by war. I understand it. But I’m not sure I believe it.

There are thousands of identical stone squares lined up in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Many don’t have names, only numbers. Some are so old even the arbitrary numbers have worn off. And other than the same tired line from Abraham Lincoln about Vicksburg being “the key,” I couldn’t find anything in the park that really told me why so many men were made to sit in hot, muddy trenches waiting to be done in by dysentery. Abraham Lincoln also said that the civil war was the time we tested whether or not the great experiment of democracy could survive. Perhaps we passed the test, or maybe we just won the war.

GravesIt is fitting that my favorite internet purveyors of history, CrashCourse, recently released a video in which John Green rattles off every major battle of the Civil War in less than eight minutes. It gets boring and monotonous fast, which is the whole point. While it’s nice to talk about great battles like Vicksburg and Yorktown and Verdun, there’s only so much to be said about them. On (date) a battle was fought at (location). The victorious side was (winner), who went on to fight more battles and more wars because it seems we never learn.

The Birthplace of the Blues

Bottle ArtThe Shack Up Inn is easily one of the best hotel experiences I’ve had. Outside of Clarksdale on an old plantation, the rooms really are shacks. Most are the old shotgun style, refurbished to add nice things like plumbing and air conditioning without sacrificing nicer things like creaking floorboards and slamming screen doors. The shacks are all themed, mine being for the blues musician Pinetop Perkins. The grounds are littered with well-placed old bicycles, farm equipment, and bottle art. The front desk told me they had doughnuts there in the morning, and moon pies in the evening. I asked what a moon pie was and she told me, “It’s like a Wagon Wheel, only smaller.” This didn’t actually help as I didn’t know what a Wagon Wheel was either, but eating the Moon Pies later cleared everything up.

Pinetop ShackI drove into town to see what there was to see. In small towns the answer of what there is to see is usually “not much,” but sometimes that’s what I’m interested in. I parked near a few stores and walked along, looking through the windows. I came upon the Cat Head, which was mentioned by both the innkeeper and my National Geographic road trip. The Cat Head is a blues music & art store, so it wasn’t surprising to hear music as soon as I walked in. What was surprising was that it was being played by the man behind the counter. I bought a postcard, he put down his guitar and introduced himself as Preston, and I told him about my trip. He offered to teach me a little about the Mississippi Delta and how the flooding of the river gave birth to the Blues. To paraphrase:

The Mississippi River loves to overflow it’s banks, reaching all the way out to the Yazoo River. After hundreds of years of seasonal flooding, the delta had some of the richest topsoil on the planet, making it perfect for cotton plantations. When white settlers first discovered this rich soil the delta was full of trees and marsh land, and it was still subject to regular flooding. In order to build a plantation, the land had to be cleared and levees built. At the time this meant slave labor, and slave labor in excess of what most people could afford. As a result, only the wealthiest slave-owners moved to the delta. Preston said that at one point, the richest people in the country all lived on Manhattan or in the Mississippi Delta.

After the civil war, the plantation owners still needed cheap labor, and ensured they could get it with things like vagrancy laws. This allowed the police to arrest any man walking on a public street who didn’t have any money. The plantation owners could then pay the state to hire these “criminals” to work the land. Another popular way around the illegality of slavery was to bring on black families as tenant farmers, with the idea that they would work the land for several years, pay the landowner with the crop yield, and eventually make some money for themselves. In the grand European tradition of getting people who don’t read English to sign contracts written in English, most tenants were given a bad deal.

One notable exception to this system was plantation owner Will Dockery. He developed a reputation for fair treatment of his tenants, and his plantation grew to have over 2,000 workers. One of these workers was Charley Patton, one of the first great blues musicians. The likes of Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson came to learn from Patton and his students, and the Dockery Plantation is recognized by many as the birthplace of the Blues for this reason.

The Sunflower RiverAfter the history lesson, Preston went on to explain how the drastic economic disparity of the Delta’s slavery roots never went away. “There is no middle class in Clarksdale,” he told me. “You are the very rich, or the very poor. The former being white, and the later being black.” Preston moved to Clarksdale eight months ago, and he says most of the black friends he’s made thus far are illiterate, including the guys in his band. Looking around the town, I could see what he meant. It became more apparent when I was sitting in a diner the next day and a black woman came in to order some food to-go. She asked what it cost, and had to go back out to her car twice to find the last four pennies she needed to pay for it. “You can tell I’m waiting on payday,” she joked with the woman behind the counter. On my way out of Clarksdale, I saw a sign with a set of words I was not expecting in such a rural part of the country: Coahoma Country Club. I would see two more country clubs on the way to Vicksburg, and pass by the two kinds of houses the region has: mobile homes and beautiful, large, brick buildings.

I’d heard live music four nights in a row, and the birthplace of the blues seemed like an awful place to break the cycle. Unfortunately I was in Clarksdale on a Tuesday, and Preston lamented that I wouldn’t be able to go to Red’s, a place he called “the last real Mississippi juke joint in the world.” There was only one place in town with live music on a Tuesday. The venue is an art gallery by day with music in the evenings. It’s not exactly the kind of salt of the earth dive one might hope to find on the Mississippi River, but it was still live blues music. I met a few foreign travelers before the show began, and for awhile the only people there were other guests from the Shack Up Inn. An old Skinny man came in to sit down at the bar. He obviously knew the owners and started joking back and forth with them, primarily about the inability of Americans when it comes to driving and something about Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner and a rapist so who needs to listen to him anyway. The old man slumped over on the couch next to me and slept through most of the first set.

MusicianFor his part, the guitarist playing that Tuesday was an interesting and talented man. Preston warned me that “he can play some good blues for a white boy, but he’s a bit too flamboyant for my tastes.” I could understand what he meant. He reminded me a lot of my “uncle” Rich, one of my parent’s old band mates. He’s the sort who always seems to be walking the line between musician and comedian, and won’t be shy about taking a drink of his beer in the middle of a chorus. The musician in Clarksdale had a habit of finding every other blues player in the room and calling them up to play a song, at which point he would head over to grab another beer and introduce himself to everyone in the place. He pointed to the old man slumped over on the couch and said, “That’s blues legend Watermelon Slim passed out on the couch, when he wakes up I’ll have him come up here a play you a tune.”

The CrossroadsAs the evening dragged on a few more people showed up, clearly locals. The room was still only halfway full when the mayor walked in wearing a suit and tie, and the party really started. Dozens of people trailed in after him, and I was only able to stay another half hour before the late hour got to me and I had to head back to my shack. I passed by the legendary crossroads at Highways 61 and 49, one of the many sites said to be the spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his amazing musical talent. Early in the day when I checked in to my room I was shown a collection of guitars in the lobby. I was told I was welcome to bring any of the instruments to my room. I grabbed a guitar and sat on my screen porch, looking at the stars and pretending I knew what I was doing. I may have my soul, but I can’t play the guitar worth a damn.

A Pair of Kings in Memphis

Concert CrowdI hooked up with another couch surfing host in Memphis. She’s hoping to sell her house and move to Mexico soon, so the home has been emptied of most of her belongings. It gives the place a comfortingly austere quality. We grabbed dinner at the second best BBQ place in town and swapped ideologies about simple living and consumerism. She talked about why she chose Mexico, the troubles of getting her house sold, and the pushback of doing that which society doesn’t expect or endorse. I have some experience with that last one. We got along famously. After dinner she suggested we go to the park, as there was a free concert featuring an Israeli blues band, which was certainly intriguing enough to warrant the trip. The band was fantastic, playing a range of blues standards plus a few of their own.

The next morning while my host was at work I headed downtown. I parked the car and took the trolly down to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had been told by many people that I couldn’t miss the museum. It was one of the highlights of Memphis. I should bring tissues. When I arrived the ticket taker explained that there would be a short film, after which I was to go to the top floor and work my way down. The movie gave a bit of backstory regarding Martin Luther King Jr. The doors of the theater opened and I rode the elevator with the rest of the museum goers upstairs, where we are immediately hit with the assassination. There were facts about the shooter, clips from speeches Dr. King made in the weeks leading up to his death, a replica of the car the shooter was said to have escaped in, and even the gun used as evidence in the trial.

Getting my Picture TakenThe museum itself is in the building across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was staying. They have preserved the bathroom and window they believe James Earl Ray shot from. It’s a strange feeling to stand there and look out the window toward the Lorraine, the memorial reef, and the tourists taking pictures. After going through the exhibits, including several on the possible conspiracy theories and the reasoning behind them (for it’s part, the museum tries to show the evidence without drawing any conclusions), I went outside and across the street to the Lorraine. A recording plays non-stop outside the old motel. It gives a few words regarding the details of the day of the assassination, followed by one of Dr. King’s favorite gospel performers singing a hymn in memorial. Several rooms, including the one Dr. King stayed in, have been refurbished to the time of the assassination. As a visitor you are welcome to go up the stairs to the second floor balcony and stand in the exact spot where he was shot, with your feet where the blood would have pooled. You can put your hands on the railing, look over across the street to where James Earl Ray was said to have stayed, and listen to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the speakers while tourists take photos of you. That is a moment to give you shivers.

Lorraine MotelWhile visiting that spot was certainly moving, I was a bit disappointed with the museum itself. It was assaultive, but not in the compelling way I had experienced at the Oklahoma City Memorial. It was more jarring and unexpected. Where was the history? Where were the exhibits about the rest of the movement? This was supposed to be a civil rights museum, so why was I only seeing material about this one event? Much later, when recounting my experience to another host, I was told that the main part of the museum is actually inside the Lorraine Motel itself, which was under construction during my visit and wasn’t open to the public. It was a bit of a relief to know that I wasn’t mistaken in my disappointment. I suppose I’ll have to return to Memphis one day to see the real thing.

The well known (but I’m told not that great) Rendevous restaurant was closed, so I headed to Beale Street for lunch. It should be noted the Beale Street, and for that matter all of Memphis, is surprisingly small. The downtown area seems to only stretch about a dozen walkable blocks, and Beale Street itself is perhaps four blocks long if you’re really pushing it. I found a reputable looking place and sat at the counter. I ordered the chicken & waffles and, upon recommendation from the waitress, a side of mac & cheese. I never know how I’m supposed to eat chicken & waffles. A fork? My hands? With syrup? With butter? It always sounds like such a good idea, but every time I try it seems like I end up confused and sticky. The mac & cheese, however, was delicious. I talked with the waitress behind the counter and she explained how she’d recently found a pair of kittens abandoned in her backyard and was trying to raise them herself, at least until they’re old enough for the shelters in town to take them. Shelters won’t take newborn kittens because they require so much extra work and bottle feeding, a fact that my waitress knew all too well. I wandered the length of Beale Street, eventually hearing music from a live performer being pumped out of one of the bars. The song was “Walking in Memphis,” and I got to experience that satisfying feeling of doing something I’d always wanted to do: listen to “Walking in Memphis” while actually walking in Memphis.

Peacock windowsI went back to my car and drove to the mighty and independently run state that is Graceland. The place is run a bit like a theme park, with different areas and attractions, and more gift shops than I’ve ever seen in one place. I personally visited at least five. Visitors are all given audio guides, and a shuttle runs from the main area over to the house. Like all of Memphis, the mansion was surprisingly small. While the furnishings inside certainly convey a sense of wealth, they also reflect the 1970s taste of a former country boy. The Jungle Room is just a living room with a hunting lodge vibe. There’s shag carpet on some of the ceilings, but the carpet itself is that same carpet you’ve seen in any number of old, refurbished basements of the time. The backyard swing set looks just like the one I grew up with. The back of the house is so ordinary you wouldn’t pick it out of a crowd. In light of the recent behaviors in over-the-top housing, as well as a personal comparison to the Hearst Castle and the Winchester House, the Mansion at Graceland is absolutely quaint.

JumpsuitsAdjacent buildings have been renovated to display The King’s many gold records and awards, as well as memorabilia from his career. It is in these areas that you get a better sense of who he was and what his life was like. There’s a real feeling that he got trapped in a movie deal he hated but couldn’t escape, and that the 1968 comeback special was one of the highlights of his career. Another building showcases his achievements in the 1970s, which I had always perceived as the dwindling of his career. When you think of Elvis fondly, you think of Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog. But when you look at the numbers, he was selling better in the 70s than at any time in his life. Several fantastic jumpsuits are on display, as well as clips from performances in those later years.

GravesiteAnd then, without transition, without fanfare, and without explanation, the voice on the audio guide simply says “Elvis Presley died of heart failure on August 16th, 1977.” It directs you outside to the gravesite, and explains that the body was moved here out of security concerns. And that’s it. There he is, next to his family members in a peaceful garden. There is no mention of drugs, weight, depression, or illness. He was an amazing man with a dazzling career who unexpectedly died of heart failure one day. And that’s all Graceland has to say about it.

I searched the gift shops looking for memorabilia from the 1969 film “The Trouble with Girls.” While widely regarded as one of his least popular and least influential films, “The Trouble with Girls” holds the important distinction of being the only Presley film that my mother was in. Her and her bandmates at the time were given small but memorable roles, and it’s always been one of my favorite facts about my family. However I had no such luck. The only pieces of merchandise they had in the shops were copies of the film itself, of which our family already owns two. My mother always said that while Elvis’s people could sometimes be a bit of a pain, the man himself was very nice. Just another musician. I related this story to a woman working at the gift shop who said it was in line with everything she’d ever heard about the man, and she’s heard quite a bit.

My last night in Memphis my host and I tried to track down some live music and eventually got together with a few other couch surfers for drinks. Before I left, she got a call from her real estate agent that they finally got an offer on the house. My host was a great woman and while I’m happy she’s following her heart, it’s sad to think I’ll probably never see her again.

W.C. HandyIf Memphis did anything, it left me with an appreciation for size. Memphis has had a huge impact on history and culture, even though the city itself feels like a small town. For Elvis, his impact got smaller as he got bigger, both physically and financially. Now his house is dwarfed by the theme park that surrounds it. The Civil Rights Museum and the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, despite their enormous influence, were temporarily reduced to only one event, one moment, one small piece of lead. And as for my host? A wonderful woman with a fantastic life and many great dreams had her entire world change with one short phone call. And now she turns to the tough task of reducing a large life down to a few things, packing them up, and walking out of Memphis.

Pavement and Music in the Ozarks

I’m sitting on an uncomfortable bench. It’s uncomfortable because the back of the bench is shaped like a guitar. I would move, but every other seat in the park is taken. On the other side of the gazebo a man wears a T-Shirt that reads, “Infidel and Proud of It.” There’s just enough breeze to blow past the smell of a muggy summer night, and the sweet sound of bluegrass is in the air. I’m in Mountain View, Arkansas, the Folk Music Capital of the World. Or so all the signs say.

MusiciansI was told by a National Geographic road trip guide that there would be music played on the courthouse steps if I got here on a Saturday night. It became clear when I arrived in town around 6PM that the music was on more than just the steps. It was off to the side, in front of the BBQ joint, next to the music shop, and all over the park. Little groups of musicians gathered together in circles, playing the tunes it seems everyone knows but me. The townsfolk walk around with their camping chairs in tow, looking for a good spot to set up shop. At one point I walk by a group of people sitting in a circle staring at nothing, and find out that they’re sitting there hoping some musicians will show up. There are dogs and kids and banjos everywhere. One of the first tunes I hear is Dueling Banjos from Deliverance. I get a room at the bed & breakfast overlooking the park, mostly out of convenience. I’ve never stayed in a bed & breakfast before, though I’m starting to understand their appeal. The place is ridiculously cute.

Woman in a Cowboy HatAs I walk through the park, I’m reminded of the bluegrass festivals I went to back in high school, when I’d visit my dad on tour with his band, The Waybacks. I loved going to the festivals and hanging out with the band. I would usually get a backstage pass, and sometimes I would happen upon musicians in the greenroom, gathered around for an impromptu jam session. All of Mountain View is an impromptu jam session. Sitting in the gazebo, I strike up a conversation with a local sitting next to me, and he says they don’t just do this on Saturdays. Almost every night of the week, all summer long, you will find people scattered around the park and courthouse. “It’s a bit slow on Mondays,” he tells me, “Maybe only one or two groups will be here.” It happens in the winter too, but since they have to move indoors “you gotta know where to look.”

My new friend is an older man with a wife and grown kids. He explains that the school here starts teaching music in the forth grade, and provides students with the musical instrument of their choice to take home and practice. I’m told the really talented kid musicians will show up later. Sure enough, right around 9:30PM, after people have been playing for over three hours, I see an eight-year-old girl in a pretty white dress join a group that already has ten players. She’s got a fiddle, and she’s better at it than most people are at most things.

Younger GroupMy friend points out a few people, some musicians and some spectators, that are from out of town. There’s a couple from Memphis who own a second home here to accommodate their visits. There’s a guitarist from New Orleans that works in sales and tries to find every excuse to go after potential clients in northern Arkansas or southern Missouri, just so he can manage to be in Mountain View every Friday and Saturday night. I consider asking my new friend what a person would do if they lived in Mountain View and didn’t like bluegrass, but I stop short when I realize the answer is probably “move.”

Steel GuitarHis back is hurting him, so my friend decides to get up and walk around for a bit. I see a man with a corn dog, and realize the nearby restaurants still have their to-go windows open. I grab some dinner and walk around, nibbling on my fair food as leftover 4th of July fireworks go off in the distance. I create this dream in my head where I finally learn how to play the guitar and spend a week in Mountain View trying out a different B&B every day and honing my picking skills every night. Or maybe I’ll just book a week at the place by the park, and sit around with the rest of the town, eating cotton candy and joining in to sing a chorus of “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.” Either way, it sounds like a beautiful way to have a lot of fun while getting nothing done. At least, that’s how I would feel. The people of Mountain View don’t see it as doing nothing. For them, this is everything.

I got to Mountain View by way of a winding road through the Ozarks, a beautiful drive that’s so curvy I couldn’t use my cruise control. I stopped in a town with a posted population of 339 to get some gas, a a pair of bikers pulled up behind me.

“You must be lost,” one of the bikers says with a smile.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

He points to my Washington State license plate and I smile. “No,” I tell him, “I’m just wandering.”

“You are lost,” he says with a laugh. “There’s no reason to be here.”

Jasper - In God We TrustI stop in Jasper for lunch, and sit next to an old man at the counter. His accent is so thick I have to have him repeat almost everything he says. He tells me he’s lived in Jasper his whole life, and asks me if I’m from around here.

“No,” I say, “I’m from far away.”

“What, like Missouri?” He asks.

“No, Seattle.”

“Oh,” he nods, “California.”

He tells me how it used to be you could barely get anything in or out of Jasper because the roads were so windy and very few were paved. Trucks couldn’t handle it. You were stuck. Nothing came in and nothing went out. They’ve paved the roads since then, but he still doesn’t seem very happy to be living here. Highway 7 is a favorite among motorcyclists and runs right through Jasper. There are plenty of bikers outside during our conversation, and the old man motions to them.
“I don’t know why they come through here,” he says, “I wouldn’t.”

Possum SmokerWithout much fanfare he says goodbye and takes his cup of coffee over to a table of old men sitting behind us. Two hours away in Mountain View there’s a certain nostalgia when they talk about the days when you couldn’t get in or out. Back then, the “real hillbillies” would come down to the town on weekends and “then you’d really hear somethin’ you’d never heard before.” But people don’t live like that anymore. There’s no need. You don’t need to stay isolated on your farm in the mountains when you can get the things you need from town. The days of the illiterate country bumpkin who can play a washboard like it’s a Stradivarius are gone. It’s as though the Industrial Revolution only just recently arrived in the Ozarks, and people are a little disappointed. Still, it’s probably too late for my friend in Jasper. I doubt he will ever leave Arkansas. To be honest, I’m not sure he’ll ever get as far as Mountain View.

Viva las Branson

When I put Branson, Missouri on my list of cities to visit, the only thing I knew of it was a joke I once heard on The Simpsons. Bart says that his dad told him Branson Missouri “is like Las Vegas … if it were run by Ned Flanders.” Having visited I can think of no better or more accurate description on earth.

As I got physically nearer to Branson, I had more and more people specifically tell me not to bother. “You can skip Branson,” they’d say. Some would just offer a skeptical look and a shake of the head. Nothing could have made me want to visit Branson more than having absolutely everyone tell me I don’t need to see it. I had to find out what was so incredibly unimpressive.

TitanicMiles before you get to Branson there are billboards advertising the shows and attractions. I see one indicating that the “Official Visitor’s Center” has it’s own radio station, and I tune in. For the most part the DJ repeats the location and features of the visitor’s center: hotels, tickets, free popcorn and soda, and most importantly, Plinko. This is intercut with comedy clips from a man who would have been the funniest guy alive back in 1947. I arrive at the visitor’s center to find it rather lacking. I didn’t expect it to be the whirlwind adventure that the radio made it out to be, but I did expect slightly more than two surly women with a wall full of pamphlets and no open hotel rooms that I could book. I take my very small but free Dr. Pepper and continue into town. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that this was the Friday of a holiday weekend and I was trying to get a same-day hotel reservation.

I pass several more of these proprietary visitor’s centers on my way in, and quickly realize that this is the way of things in Branson. You go to a center, they do all the arrangements for you, and you enjoy your weekend. I finally manage to get the penultimate room in a truly unimpressive motel and a ticket to “Legends in Concert,” the celebrity impersonation show.

Most of the hotels and theaters in Branson are on one main drag, which I learned the locals actually call “The Strip.” The Landing is a separate area a little ways from The Strip, down by the river. The area surrounds a pedestrian street and is full of shops and tourists. I consider it Branson’s answer to Fremont Street in Las Vegas. I walk to one end of it, seeing the typical clothing and fudge as I go. When I get to the end, a man in a passenger-ready golf cart asks me and a handful of old ladies nearby if we’d like a ride to the other end. While Las Vegas is too big for anyone to walk, Branson is just too big for the little old ladies. He drops us off at the largest bait shop I’ve ever seen in my life, and I continue to wander. There’s a “Hurricane Simulator” for tourists to stand in, and I see a pair of fully covered Muslim women entertaining a toddler. One of the shop employees tries to get me to play Plinko.

Branson FountainsJust off the pedestrian drag is the river, and in front of the river is a fountain. Picture the gorgeous and gigantic fountain in front of The Bellagio, shooting up towers of water 400 feet in the air, synced with the sound of Frank Sinatra. Now make it smaller. Much, much smaller. So small that the water reaches the grand height of about 40 feet and the song is Shania Twain.

I drive down The Strip to get back to my hotel. There are big theaters, hotels, billboards advertising the shows, mini-golf, water parks, candy shops, and stores that will let you dress up in cowboy costumes and take old-timey photos. And that is it. Everything I just listed. Mini-golf. Old-timey photos. Theater. Mini-golf. Over and over again that is all you see. Nothing but good family fun. Everywhere.

Grand Country Buffet

My seat at Legends in Concert is in the front row. Everyone around me is in their 60s or 70s. The woman on my right asks me if I’ve seen the show before, and I tell her no, this is my first time in Branson. She tells me that this will be the forth time she has seen it. Her son is one of the dancers, and she only lives about a day’s drive from the city. I ask her to point him out for me once the show starts and she says, “Oh he’s not hard to recognize – he’s the bald one.”

The show begins and Johnny Cash takes the stage. He’s got a nice rumble to his voice and he plays “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which has recently become a favorite of mine. For each song the dancers come out to liven up the performance a bit, one of them even taking the place of June Carter to perform “Jackson.” It is very easy to recognize the woman’s son, as there are only two male dancers in the show. I’m reminded of the show TEXAS, and while I’m not sure about the bald one, the other male on stage is dancing in a one man pride parade. I worry once again that I’m being too judgmental and jumping to conclusions. At one point the dancers come into the crowd and start high-fiving the audience members. The woman’s son gives her a wave, and the other man comes right up to hug her. She leans over to tell me that the other dancer is her son’s roommate, and I am now certain that at least one of us has severely misjudged the situation.

Celine DionAfter Johnny is Celine Dion, and I can’t tell if I don’t like her performance or if I just don’t like Celin Dion. The third act is the Blues Brothers, who are phenomenal. On either side of the stage are large screens that switch between showing a live feed of the performance and videos of the original person in concert. At one point I look up at the live feed of the Blues Brothers impersonators on stage. He’s doing a great Dan Aykroyd when I realize that the guitar player on the screen is wearing a different shirt than the one on stage. Those are the real Blues Brothers on screen, but the performers on stage are dancing with such spot-on accuracy I didn’t even notice.

ElvisAfter a short intermission and a nice set by The Temptations, it’s time for the main event: Elvis. It stands to reason that with so many Elvis impersonators in the world, and so many in Branson alone, the one featured in Legends in Concert would be terrific. He was amazing. Rather than trying to mimic the voice or the stance perfectly, he was impersonating the personality. It was easy to get swept up in the show, even with the various costume changes as we moved through the Elvis canon. At one point the band gathered around in a semi-circle of chairs, mimicking the jam session from Elvis’s 1968 comeback special. They played a song, and then Elvis told the audience that they wanted to open it up for suggestions. This seemed pretty impressive, but I figured they probably get the same handful of Elvis hits every night, and I wasn’t sure that the impersonator was really playing the guitar or just pretending to. After the first request was over I yelled out “A Little Less Conversation,” which is one of my Elvis favorites. He smiled and looked at the other guitarist saying, “We haven’t done that one in a while. What key is that in, D? Or is it A?” The guitarist shrugs, equally unaware of the correct key. Elvis starts playing his guitar and singing the chorus while the rest of the band watches and waits. At the end of the chorus and without skipping a beat, he laughs and proclaims, “I think it is in D!” With a smooth as butter key change the rest of the band joins in and they finish out the song. This guy isn’t pretending to be a great performer. He is one. I am completely smitten. I consider getting a photo with him after the show, but he is immediately swamped by the over 50 crowd and I just can’t compete.

Music HallAnd that, dear reader, is Branson. It is hype and glitz and glamor and excess as reigned in by your well-meaning Christian neighbor to be nothing but good, wholesome, family fun with a side of geriatrics. Over the course of this trip I have occasionally found myself annoyed by the tourists and vacationers around me. Without physical limitations or annoying kids in tow, I’m usually the one anxiously pushing past in a hurry to get to my next destination. If only people could be a little less gullible and little more self-aware this whole country would be a better place. But Branson is the only place where I’m not bothered by the families, the lumberers, the shoppers, the ignorant, the loud, the confused. Because I am the one out of place here. This is where they belong. And if these young, anxious twenty-somethings would just get out of the way, maybe this whole town would be a better place.

Stuck in Kansas City with the Memphis Blues Again

I am on my way back from visiting the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka when my driver’s side window gets stuck open a crack. I push the button but nothing happens. I figure it isn’t that big of a deal, and continue my drive. I am going 70 miles an hour when the entire window slams down. It is wide open and can’t be moved at all. Everything I own on this trip is in my car. If I can’t roll up my windows and lock the vehicle, I might as well leave it all out on a curb. Not to mention that it is unspeakably annoying to drive on a freeway with your window down.

It is Sunday, and no mechanics are open for business. I am staying with friends of the family, Cindy and John, who say I can park in the garage for the night and we can take the car in the next morning. When we get there, the mechanic says the problem won’t be too hard a fix, but they are already booked up for the day. He says he’ll try to get to it, but it might not be until the next morning. I am supposed to be on the road already, halfway to Branson. I message my host in Branson to let her know I won’t be able to make it, and Cindy and I go back to the house.

I do some quick math with my upcoming plans: After Branson I was going to spend two nights in the Ozarks before heading over to Memphis in time for the 4th of July. I didn’t want to be camping alone in the Ozarks for the holiday, so I knew that if I couldn’t get to Memphis in time to celebrate the Forth, I would prefer to stick around Kansas City with John and Cindy. If I could be on the road by noon the next day, I could still make it.

WWI MuseumWith an extra day in the city and most museums closed on Mondays, Cindy takes me out “crusin” for what there is to see. Cindy is retired so her days are pretty free, and our first stop is the World War I museum, which is the only one of it’s kind in the country. The woman at the counter tells us our tickets are good for two days, and Cindy leans over to me to ask, “Would you really need two whole days just to see a museum?” The answer, as we discovered, is yes. That is if you really wanted to go through the whole place, reading everything and watching all the documentary films. There is so much stuff packed into the museum, it is a bit overwhelming. It’s hard for me to study WWI at times, I think because it seems so utterly pointless. You look at the tactics and technology and think, “Why bother doing it at all if you’re going to do it that way?” The First World War is just modern enough that the outdated warfare no longer feels quaint. You look at the causes – a mishmash of unconnected things that were happening at the time – and they’re no different, better, or worse than things at any other time. Worst of all, you see how many people died horrible deaths, and it’s hard to see what it was for. Nothing was gained. It barely holds the mystique of a literary musing on the pointlessness of war.  In the end, the biggest and most impactful thing it seems to have done is make World War II inevitable.

WWI towerOn a related note, the night before we had watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I had forgotten what an absolute trip Gene Wilder is, specially in his role as Willy Wonka. Perhaps readers will remember the peculiar manner in which Mr. Wonka always seemed to answer questions. He had a way of smiling and talking a lot, saying many things, but in the end not really giving you the information you were looking for. I bring this up, because the WWI museum is staffed almost entirely of friendly old men, all of whom have a similar tendency when asked what seems to be a very straight-forward question. For example,  there’s a fairly impressive obelisk sticking out of the center of the museum, and we knew our tickets would let us go to the observation deck on top. But every time we asked for directions we got a long explanation of how the museum is set up and the various exhibits available. This explanation rarely included such key phrases as “go that way” or “let me show you on the map.” For those interested in visiting the tower at the World War One Museum in Kansas City, the correct answer to the question is “take the elevator to the second floor, then go outside.”

ShuttlecockAfter the WWI museum we head over to the art museum, which is closed for the day. We are just there to see the giant sculptures of shuttlecocks that litter the grounds. That evening John and Cindy have to go to dinner at John’s boss’s house, and I opt to go to their 13-year-old granddaughter’s volleyball game. The granddaughter, Cynthia, is easily the best player on her team, and it is obvious how frustrating it is for her to lose while her teammates fumble around. What’s worse is that in this particular league they play three games regardless of who wins or loses, so we have to watch her team lose three times. At one point Cynthia’s mom leans over to me to say, “Maybe we should get her some ice cream afterwards.”

By the next morning the mechanics still haven’t looked at my car. It is now clear that I will be celebrating the 4th of July in Kansas City. I spend the afternoon reformulating my plans and Cindy makes us chicken salad sandwiches. It’s disappointing. I was planning on meeting up with some couch surfers in Memphis to go out for the Forth. While our plans weren’ t certain, once you get an idea like “I’m going to be in Memphis for the Forth of July” in your head, it’s hard to let it go. When the dealership finally calls that evening he tells me that they’ve fixed the window but my battery is almost dead. We pick up the car with plans to get a new battery in the morning. I spend the evening cleaning out the vehicle and before the night is over the car won’t start at all. I consider this a pretty lucky break, knowing how many places my battery could have died that would have been less opportune than parked in a good friend’s garage.

The dealer suggests that we run the car for at least 20 minutes once we have the new battery in, and Cindy, Cynthia, and I take the opportunity to drive to the Kansas side of Kansas City for some truly delicious BBQ. The joint, Oklahoma Joe’s, is a restaurant in a gas station with a line out the door. Oklahoma Joe’s is just one of the many experiences I’ve had that prove that if there’s a line out the door, get in it. The food is always delicious.

Cindy wanted to take us both to the Negro Baseball Museum, so we drive back to Missouri. The city was the former home of the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest-running Negro League Baseball team. It’s strange to look at some of the artifacts there. It’s a museum celebrating a time that evokes both extreem pride and terrible shame. We wish it didn’t need to happen, but how grand it was when it did. At one point I hear the teenage Cynthia remark, “That’s stupid.” I walk over to see her pointing to a sign labeled “Stadium Seating” with arrows pointing in opposite directions and the words “white” and “colored” above the arrows. Yes, Cynthia, it was quite stupid.

God and GunsFinally the day arrives: it is the Forth of July. I learn from Cindy that for many years she hasn’t done anything on Independence Day. Some years back a family member died in a fatal car accident on the Forth, and it just never felt like a day to celebrate after that. However, Cindy decides my presence is an excellent excuse to change things up. John won’t be able to celebrate much because of the dreadful hours he’s working right now, but Cindy suggests her and I attend the KC Riverside Festival. The festival runs all day, but we wait until 6-7PM to show up. We park the car in the improvised, grassy parking lot and scope the place out. We see some chairs set up along the river bank and begin to speculate on where the fireworks might be. There’s a woman with two chairs and a blanket sitting at the top of the bank, and we ask her for advice. “This is the perfect spot,” she says, “Come join us.” We set up our chairs and take a seat. Cindy leans over to ask if I could switch with her, since a part of her chair is broken and digging into her legs. She thinks it won’t bother me since I’m a bit smaller. I stand up, and Cindy tries to do the same. She’s moving slowly, and I realize it’s because the chair is breaking. I hold out my hand to help her up and the chair collapses underneath her like we’re in a slapstick comedy. She explains that her kids have been borrowing the chairs lately, and it’s not surprising they haven’t all returned in peak condition. The woman next to us sees the whole thing and insists we use one of her chairs instead, explaining that they “have extra.” We thank her and decide to grab some dinner while she agrees to watch over the chair and a half we have left.

The food is typical corn dogs and beer, and Cindy and I take in a set from one of the bands performing at the festival. We go back to the chairs and meet the rest of the woman’s family: Dad, an Iraq veteran, Son, an energetic middle-schooler, and Daughter with her Boyfriend, who spend most of the evening cuddled up next to each other on the blanket the way teenage couples are inclined to do whenever permitted. The Dad is sitting on the ground and I suggest that he take the chair they brought and I’ll sit on the blanket with the kids. He is having none of that, and insists that he’ll be laying down with his iPod most of the time anyway. The Mom explains to me that since the war he has had some trouble with loud noises. He brought the iPod to help drown out the sound. She tells me not to be alarmed if he’s a bit jumpy when the fireworks start. He’s fine. He’s just working through it.

The Mom leaves to pick up some drinks, and when she returns she has two extra beers – one for me and one for Cindy. The gesture is wonderful, though I’m at a loss. I hate beer. I don’t care for most alcohols, but I have a tough time choking down beer specifically. Cindy knows this, and surreptitiously switches out the half a beer she’s already had with my full one. I drink as much as I can, feeling like if ever there is a time to drink beer, it is on the bank of a river in Kansas City on the Forth of July.

Teenagers on the RiverDarkness sets in and everyone positions themselves for the fireworks. I again try to insist that the Dad take my seat, but he says he’s fine. Instead, he leans up against the front of his wife’s chair, and props his elbows up on her knees. She reaches down to rub his upper arms, and Cindy comments on how comfortable and serene the two of them look. The kids position themselves on the blanket with the Son by himself and the two teenagers cuddling ever closer. We stare across the river to the green bank on the other side. The Mom warns me that this is a very impressive display, and that I might think it’s over several times before the real finale begins. The Dad closes his eyes, puts his headphones back in, and turns up the volume.

The fireworks start, and she is right, it is impressive. Every once in a while a particularly loud blast goes off, and the Dad shutters in his seat. The Mom rubs his arms to comfort him. His eyes are still closed, and I start to think about what a brave thing this is for him to be doing. He’s not enjoying the fireworks, he’s suffering through them. But he’s here, with his family, on a day meant to celebrate the country for which he fought. I can’t shake the knowledge that fireworks are meant to remind us of exactly what haunts him – the bombs bursting in air. And here I am, stuck in Kansas City on the Forth of July with a war veteran, his wife, and their 2.5 kids, drinking half a watery beer and sitting in a borrowed camp chair. It’s hard to imagine Memphis could have done better than this.

My Visit to the Westboro Baptist Church

I arrive at the door of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas and am met by two big, angry-looking guys in “God Hates Fags” T-Shirts. I ask to attend the service and they start grilling me about my intentions. Where am I from. Why am I here. What do I want. How do I feel about fags. Am I a fag myself or just a fag-lover. On and on. I keep my answers short, trying to seem as harmless as possible. Eventually they let me in, after checking my purse and making me leave the camera and phone in the car. I am sat next to a conservatively dressed woman who glares at me with anger and distain, as does everyone in the room. I sit through a grueling hour of loud, angry sermonizing from Fred Phelps using language too monstrous to quote. Near the end a madman runs into the room, fed up with the WBC’s hateful speech. He mows down the entire assembly with a machine gun including myself, because of course this would be the day someone finally got to them.

That’s what I thought would happen.

In truth, I arrived at the church a full 50 minutes early, being concerned that the 70 minute drive from Kansas City that morning would be somehow delayed. The Westboro Baptist Church is located in the middle of a residential area – I encourage you to look at the Google Street View for a better idea. Most members live on the same block as the church, forming a sort of compound. I park down the street and around the corner. I see a hip-looking young woman with big earrings and a digital camera get out of a car with two equally hip-looking young men. They are not going to church. They are here to take pictures, and maybe visit the Rainbow House next door. They are tourists, like me. The street is filled with cars and I suddenly wonder how popular it is to show up to a Westboro service. Am I just one of the weekly dozen? Do they expect spectators?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt’s still early, so I sit in my car reading up on Calvinism. A man and a woman arrive, both in their late 40s or early 50s. Her dress is noticeably conservative and old fashioned. These are members. I watch as they go through the back gate of a nearby house. I suppose everyone in the church knows each other pretty well, and it’s no big deal to walk through a friend’s backyard. I still have a half hour before the service starts, but I figure if other parishioners are arriving already then I’m not too early. I leave my camera in the car just in case it might arise suspicion, and walk towards the front of the church. A sick feeling of dread fills my stomach, the kind I normally reserve for jumping off high objects into water with friends more daring than myself. As I approach, I see people in the yard of the Rainbow House. There is a television camera as well. They stare at me. I hadn’t considered what it would feel like to be watched. I look over at my LGBT allies and I want to do something. Wink or yell or wave, just something to let them know I’m not like the people I’ve come to observe. But I see the security cameras lining the WBC buildings. They might be watching.

I can see the main doors, but they are behind an uninviting black gate, covered in just enough dust and spiderwebs to let you know it won’t be opened anytime soon. There’s a small door to my left. I knock. There is no answer, so I ring the doorbell. I consider what I’ll do if no one answers. I already drove 70 minutes, could I really just walk away? I probably wouldn’t have even come to this part of the country if it weren’t for this visit. I start to wonder how far I’m willing to go. A man opens the door. He is the embodiment of an American churchgoer: young, male, white, clean shaven, attractive, and wearing a dress shirt and pants. He belongs on an advertisement.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

“I was wondering if I could attend the church service.” I say.

“Sure. Just so long as you don’t … talk or anything.” His tone is polite, and the message is clear. I can come in, but I’m not to start a scene. This is not a time for debate or protest. I completely agree.

He leads me into the worship space. It’s a medium-sized room with the carpeting and wood paneling of a building built in the 1970s. Pews are set up on either side of the support pillars going down the middle, and the young man directs me towards one of them. The pew is small, meant only for two people. There are papers next to me, which he indicates I should look through. I sit down, and a smiling, older man walks by and shows me which book we will be singing out of, a piece of information I probably could have gleaned for myself since it was the only book that wasn’t a Bible. I look around the room. There is a poster in the front outlining the five points of Calvinism to the acronym TULIP. Fred Phelps himself is there, sitting in front of one of their protest signs that reads “Fags are Beasts.” The sign isn’t hung up in anyway, simply propped up behind him. There is no other decoration in the room.

I haven’t been asked to cover my head, but I do so anyway. Every woman in the room has her head covered, even the little girls. I knew this was their tradition and I brought a scarf in preparation. The service starts almost immediately. I’ve already turned off my phone so I’m not certain of the time, but it must be at least 15 minutes until the supposed noon start time. Fred Phelps announces the first hymn. The room is small and he has a microphone, but I can still barely hear him. His age resonates through every word. I pick up the hymnal and sing along to “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” a popular hymn that I know well. We sit down, and Mr. Phelps speaks again.

“We will open this service with a prayer by Charles,” he says, “to be followed by a two-part Sermon on love for the Lord and His people by Brent. We will conclude this service by singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” He is reading straight off the bulletin paper in the pew.

Charles is a family man sitting two rows ahead of me. Everyone bows their head as he begins the prayer. He speaks extemporaneously. It is a good, well-worded prayer, and he goes on for longer than even the most long-winded of preachers are typically able to last. The prayer asks for strength and guidance. He briefly makes references to the outside world, adding that they “hate us without cause,” and that “like happened to Jesus Christ, they hate us for the words and only the words.” While these phrases catch my ear, everything else he says could be spoken from any pulpit in the country.

When the prayer is over, a man stands in front of the piano and begins to read. While this sermon has been “written” by Fred Phelps, I can’t imagine him having the stamina to read the whole thing out loud. I pick up my papers and follow along as the man reads. It begins with a popular biblical quote about loving one another. Then a line from Proverbs, and a well-known passage from Matthew on the unending nature of forgiveness. Without explanation or segue he begins to quote 19th Century theologian Albert Barnes, followed by some words from John Calvin. It goes on like this, alternating between Bible quotes and 300-year-old theological writings. There is no commentary, there is no context. I start to lose track. I can’t make sense of it. It’s dense and wordy and I can’t relate one passage to the next.

“… and be ye kind one to another, Good, affable, courteous…”

“… but whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continuity therein, he being not a forgetful hearer …”

“… as that of presbytery to serve a hierarchy; nor a degree in glory and happiness hereafter …”

SermonI grew up in the kind of church that last November had an honest debate about whether or not to use the word “fortnight” in the church canons, and ultimately voted to include it. Three times I have voluntarily attended a nearly two-week long convention of church governance and legislature. So I like to think of myself as being pretty capable of handling dense language and theological rhetoric. But even I can’t take four pages of single-spaced, out of context quotes pulled from the writings of so many verbose men. Later I took the pages home with me to re-read, and it made even less sense the second time.

After several valiant efforts to focus during the sermon, I finally let my mind and eyes wander. I saw a toddler asleep on her father’s shoulder. A man followed along with the service on his iPad. A baby began to fuss and the mother carried it out to another part of the house. The ushers stood at the side of the room. A young boy wove his fingers into each other over and over again, the way little kids do when given no other means of engagement. I’ve seen all this before. It could be any church in the country. The only difference is the scarves on the heads of the women, and the fact that at least a third of the parishioners are children.

The sermon comes to a close, ending on the words “I love you all. Amen.” We stand to sing the final song. I don’t know it, but it’s a lovely tune. The parishioners have beautiful voices, and they harmonize on everything. The service ends, the women remove their scarves, and I sit down to gather my things. There is no mention of sexuality, gender, mission, end-times, politics, soldiers, death, wrath, or America. It is the single most boring worship experience I’ve ever had.

A nice looking woman in her 40s approaches me and introduces herself. She asks if I’m visiting from out of town, and I proceed to have the same conversation I have with virtually everyone regarding my trip. I ask a few questions, and confirm that Fred Phelps did in fact write the sermon and it is typical for the weekly service. She points out that it is a sermon unlike anything I will hear anywhere else, and I can’t help but agree. She asks if I’d like to meet more people, and begins calling them over by name. I may be reading too much into this, but I feel the need to point out that she only calls over women. I don’t meet any men. We exchange polite introductions. One of the women has seven kids. “We believe that children are a gift.” Clearly.

She calls over another woman, and at first I am distracted by her noticeable pregnancy bump. We talk briefly, and I realize I recognize her.

In preparation for this visit, I watched a couple documentaries on the WBC. One was by British documentarian Louis Theroux, called “The Most Hated Family in America.” I highly recommend it, and would go so far as to say it would be best to watch it before continuing on with my story:

In the documentary, Louis spends some time talking to Jael Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’ granddaughters. She’s 21 in the film and the type of person that smiles through everything. No matter what she’s saying, no matter how painful, she’s always smiling and laughing. It’s sad to watch, because it’s a defense mechanism. At one point, Louis asks Jael about getting married and having children. “Are you kidding me? Who is gonna marry us?” she laughs. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

I was talking about it with a group of friends a few weeks ago, and someone told me they heard she got out, that she left the church. It made me happy to think she’d escaped, and would be free to find love and stop laughing at her own pain.

But then I’m standing in the middle of the WBC worship space, and here she is. Jael Phelps. Three months pregnant with her first child and married to a British ex-pat. Looking back, I wish I would have said something. I wish I would have asked her about the documentary, or about how she feels having started a family. But I was still on edge, still concerned about not doing anything to rock the boat. I saw Fred and his daughter Shirley talking in the corner, but I knew asking to meet them would raise suspicion about my intentions. Instead I nodded as the first woman explained how their vacations are incorporated into their protests, how no one is outside their ministry, and how they believe that we are living in the last generation. I left, very deliberately escorted out of the building.

I grabbed my camera out of the car, and snapped a few photos of the building. I turned around to take some pictures of the Rainbow House, and a young man walked outside. I went over to him, sensing his suspicion. I explained the situation, and he relaxed a little.

“So did you arrange it ahead of time or something?” he asked.

“No,” I told him, “I just knocked on the door.”

Rainbow HouseHe couldn’t believe it. He said that with the exception of one other church member, he hasn’t seen anyone use the front door in months. He didn’t think they let anyone in without prior arrangement. He told me that he’s actually friends with Shirley Phelps, who is rather friendly when not talking about her ministry. He asked me who was leading the service, and I confirmed that it was Fred Phelps.

“No one has seen him in 18 months,” he said. Apparently some people thought he was dead.

There were a lot of reasons I wanted to visit the WBC. I wanted to see America, the good and the bad. I wanted to find a human side to an organization that seemed to lack humanity. I wanted to do something that scared me. I wanted to understand something I couldn’t understand.

But I don’t understand. I heard about them on the news and I thought their were bigots. They came to protest in Seattle and I thought they were opportunists. I watched “The Most Hated Family in America” and I thought they were abuse victims. I watched their own documentary, “Hatemongers,” and I thought they were a mirror to the horrors that we are all capable of committing.

And then I went to their church, and I thought nothing at all. Because in their own space, when they are not being watched, when they are not trying to preach, when they are just with each other, they are unspeakably ordinary. Imagine growing up there, with a big backyard in Kansas. Your family is nice, your neighbors are nice. But the outside world hates you. You peach the religion you’re taught, and people yell at you. You’re told the world is full of violent, hateful, sinful, people, and they swear at you. You put words on your signs – words that mean next to nothing as far as you’re concerned – and people throw things at you. Fred Phelps teaches you his gospel, but the rest of the world convinces you he is right.

We don’t want to admit it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop the Westboro Baptist Church. We can try to limit their annoyance by labeling them a hate group or making it harder for them to protest, but that won’t stop them and it won’t stop the words that bother us so much. The attention gives them fuel. But there is good news. Ultimately, the WBC has based their faith on the belief that we are near the end of days. And the problem with apocalypse groups is that eventually they have to admit that the apocalypse never came. It has happened to every single doomsday group thus far, and it will happen to the WBC. Before long, Fred Phelps will die, and further prove that the assertions that death is punishment for unrighteousness and that Fred Phelps is a prophet of God cannot both be true. Like all old ideas, the young people will begin to question, and the old ways will start to lose their hold. Certainty is incredibly appealing, and it will be hard to let go of, but I believe they can and will do it.

There is nothing we can do, and that is the hardest course of action we can possibly take. To stand back while they spew such hateful words. To allow them to continue to indoctrinate their children. To ignore the protests at the funerals of solders. It is so difficult it hurts. But it is the only way.

It’s not a new idea. In fact, it’s a very, very, old one. It’s an idea once suggested by the very man the WBC purports to follow. Do not fight hate with hate. Do not give violence to violence. The Westboro Baptist Church will sue you for your shirt. Give them your coat, also.

And with time, and only time, they too will fade away.

Tornado Country

When I first drove into Oklahoma City a set of shiny structures caught my eye. Just off the highway and sitting in the fields, these colorful masses looked to be modern public art – the kind of thing the city does to make itself prettier for tourists. It seemed strange that the farmers would allow it, since I imagine it would be mighty difficult to run tractors around the 4×6 foot blocks of Experience Music Project look-a-likes. It was at this point that I realized what I was actually looking at.

They were cars.

Sidewalk in RubbleA few weeks before I ended up in Oklahoma City a tornado had run through the town. This was the first time I considered that in addition to destruction, tornados cause a huge mess. Those farmers have to deal with the mangled cars that have ended up on their property. The vehicle owners probably don’t even know they’re there. My hosts in Oklahoma City mentioned that if I was okay with a small detour on my way out of town I could see the recent damage. The tornado, the widest in the city’s history, touched down very close to the house where I stayed. I drove less than ten blocks to see a neighborhood almost identical to the one I just left. It was one of those planned communities, where the neighborhood is very nice and every forth house has the same floor plan. I drove slowly down the side streets, identifying piles of rubble that used to be homes. There is trash and debris on every lawn and in every gutter. Because the disaster happened so recently, the neighborhood shows several stages of recovery. Some houses look the way they did the day tornado hit, with caved in roofs and bent tricycles in the driveway. Other have been reduced to piles, ready to be carted away. Some lots are only foundations.

On my way to Kansas City I drove through Joplin, Missouri, which suffered the costliest tornado in U.S. History two years ago. I stopped at the local Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait and some free Wi-Fi. I looked up the wikipedia page on the disaster and read through the article to get an idea of the tornado’s path.  I finished my ice cream and headed toward where it first touched down in the southwest part of town. It was very different than Oklahoma City. This happened years ago – there’s no more debris. Instead, there’s absence. If I didn’t know better, it would just seem like an underdeveloped neighborhood, or maybe an area the city was trying to fix up. I drove past where the high school once stood, and saw where the sign used to be. I remember hearing a story once about the kids that went there. They were celebrating graduation a few miles away when it happened.

Painted TreeI kept driving and spotted a tree on the side of the road that had been stripped of it’s bark. In place of the natural coating, someone had painted it in rainbow colors. It seemed to me to be a rather iconic sign of hope, and I pulled into the adjacent parking lot to take a picture. I took a few shots and walked to the other side of the tree to see if I could get a better angle. That’s when I realized where I had parked. I was in a parking lot for a building that no longer exists. A few smalls pillars gave it away, the signs of once necessary overhead lights. There was the base of a sign near the road. It must have been a large building, like a sporting goods store or a chain grocery. And now there’s nothing. Whatever used to be there, it wasn’t worth it to rebuild.

Further down the road I see a bank that has taken up residence in a portable. The mobile unit sits on the land that once held a formal bank building, and I can only assume the portable is a temporary solution until a new building can be constructed. I wonder how they secure such a structure, and if money has to be carted in and out every day.

As I get near the center of town I remember a story I read in the wiki article about the local Pizza Hut. With no underground shelter to retreat to, all the employees and customers went into the large freezer. The freezer, I imagine as a safety precaution, could not be securely closed from the inside. The manager held the door closed with his arm, and was killed during the storm. There’s still a Pizza Hut in that spot. I hope they fixed the latch on the freezer.

Time Travel in Oklahoma City

My couch surfing host and I had agreed to meet at a local Mexican restaurant in Oklahoma City. He said he would be there grabbing drinks with a few work friends. I arrive and look around, hoping he’ll see a young woman looking lost and guess it’s me. When no one jumps up to greet me, I begin scoping out the tables to see if anyone looks like a group of coworkers. I don’t even know what kind of work Rich does. Near the front of the restaurant is a large party sitting at pushed-together tables. There are about a dozen of them at all. They are young, attractive, white men in nice suits. They are a sea of go-getters. While one man matching this description sounds fine – even delightful – a group of them sounds like a misogynistic exercise in one upmanship. I am terrified these are the people I’ve come to meet.

I try to catch the eye of a few of the men, seeing if they are the right ones, and casually-dressed 20-something fills my view. It’s my host Rich, and he takes me over to his co-workers, who in comparison to the men up front are the definition of the underdog misfits. A few more nerdy guys in the 30s and 40s, a young and ambitious-looking girl, and one short woman with an angry look on her face who doesn’t work with them anymore, but she used to. They are the IT department for a major banking and insurance corporation, and they look the part.


Rich introduces the members of the group, each time giving them a somewhat insulting nickname that they hate rather than telling me their real name. “This is…uh…Kimtern.” I nod. “Because her name is Kim and she’s an intern,” he explains. “I actually figured that one out,” I tell him. He laughs.

We sit for awhile, and Rich continues to make jokes. A lot of his jokes are at the expense of others, but no one has the smarts and/or courage to muster a witty retort. So he both says the most and laughs the loudest. Most of them speak so softly I can’t hear the conversation over the sounds of the restaurant. It is hilariously awkward.

We head back to the house, a large home in a nice neighborhood with almost no decor. There’s a large TV, a sweet computer setup, and a stack of amazon boxes in the corner. He sets me up on an air mattress in one of the two completely empty bedrooms. It is, without a doubt, exactly what a well-paid computer programmer’s house is supposed to look like. Rich’s girlfriend is there, though she has her own place across town. The three of us watch TV for a bit, and Rich gets up to play games on the computer. I talk with Girlfriend, who eventually joins him at the multi-player. This is fine with me as I’ve got plenty of catching up to do on my computer. It gets late, and I’m ready for bed. I go back out into the living room to ask about the next day (when will they wake up, do they have an extra key, would they like to hangout at all, etc), but they are both so focused on the game they don’t notice me standing there. I go to bed, figuring we can work it out in the morning.

Through the DoorwayThe next day they both have to work, so I head into the city with a list of suggestions Girlfriend gave me. I visit the Cowboy Museum and take in a fancy lunch downtown which consists of organic soda and a pot pie with a fried chicken leg sticking out the top. After lunch I head over to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial & Museum. It is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.

The exhibit starts on the third floor and you work your way down. The top floor is simple and quiet. Great attention is paid to reminding you how little terrorism, domestic or foreign, there had been in the United States prior to 1995. They show a list of every incident and I’ve only heard of one: the first World Trade Center bombing. Of course, I only heard about that after the towers fell years later. It’s true, when you think about it, that there was almost no such thing as terrorism in the real world in 1995. Only James Bond and Bruce Willis encountered terrorism. It didn’t happen to normal, ordinary people.

903There is a brief history on the utterly ordinary construction and use of the federal building. It’s a little simple and dull, which I realize later is intentional. It’s meant to feel dull. This is the world of a drab office building in Oklahoma. A poster explains that this is a building where people interacted with their government, as one man did when he applied for a permit to bottle and sell the water out of his private well. After I read the poster a volunteer in a chair asks if I’m ready to move on. I nod. She explains that in the next room I’ll be listening to a recording of the man’s permit hearing with the water board.

Remembrance WallI sit on a long bench in a room dressed to imply a legal office or meeting room. There’s a table and microphone set in front of a black wall. The hearing began promptly at 9:00AM, and in the recording they establish the day, time, and purpose of the meeting. They go through the names of all parties involved to indicate their presence. Once again, it is dull and ordinary. At 9:02 the bomb goes off, and the explosion is heard on the recording. The black wall flashes the faces of 168 people. The recording is still going, and the scrambled voices of everyone in the water board room layer over each other as a set of doors on the far wall pop open to reveal a room filled with light and noise and chaos. There are TVs playing footage from the day with frantic reporters explaining how little they know of the situation. This room is very different from the ones I was just in. The cases hold large pieces of destroyed concrete and decorative windows. Many of the buildings surrounding the area were damaged as well, some to the point of being razed. There is stained glass from churches. Over a pile of mismatched shoes, a single shoe is identified. It belonged to a little girl who died in the bombing. Another case holds eyeglasses, with a single pair belonging to a survivor. There is so much noise in this room, so much chaos.

Pool with DoorIn the next space I see stories of individuals. One woman was in a meeting with a dozen other people. She said the bomb went off and in an instant all of the people in the room were gone. She suffered no injuries and her dress, on display at the museum, has a single tear. I move on, reading about rescue attempts and frantic parents. There was a preschool in the federal building that was completely destroyed. As I move down the timeline towards the days following and the increasingly desperate attempts to find survivors, the noise and light begin to calm. I then learn about the suspect, and the chase. Every change of subject brings a new room and a new feeling. It’s like living the whole thing with them. It’s a real gift for someone like me, who was too young at the time to understand the gravity of the situation. Later on in my trip I would meet a woman who lived several miles outside Oklahoma City at the time of the attack. She said she thought a truck had hit her house. She even went outside to look for the damage.

ChairsBeside the museum is a poetic memorial built on the footprint of the old building and street. A long, black reflecting pool seems deep at first, but is barely and inch. Two large doorways symbolize the before and after, and a chain link fence allows people to add their own remembrances. Over the outline of the building itself sits a field of chairs – one for each victim. The children’s chairs are small.

I never knew about the children.