With covid on the wane and the country starting to get back to normal, Embry determined it was time for a road trip. It sounded like a good idea to me since like everyone else who has been confined to a minimum security prison for the past 15 months, I was desperate to get out of Dodge. I was somewhat surprised, however, at her destination: Columbus, Ohio. Of all the exotic places we could be going, why would anyone choose Columbus?
“Indian mounds,” she replied. There are lots of Indian mounds near Columbus, plus that is where the Haydaries now live.”
The Haydaries are the immigrant family from Afghanistan that our church had adopted a few years ago and who had left the Washington area for greener pastures and cheaper housing. I sort of got that. But Indian mounds? I had seen Indian mounds in Nashville when I was growing up. No big deal, plus if you have seen one mound, you have seen them all. If you want to see what an Indian mound looks like, I suggested to Embry that she should go to virtually any golf course and check out the berms around the greens.
Well, if you know Embry, you know that when she gets a bee in her bonnet about something, there is no arguing. She had been studying Indian civilizations online and was eager to see the real thing. She told me she had already booked three nights at a luxury B&B and had identified the location of a bunch of Indian mounds. Plus, we could visit old friends living in the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland on the way over and on the way back home. How could I say no?
We spent the first day driving to Cheat Mountain WVA; and after a great visit with our old friends from graduate school days in Chapel Hill, we headed out the next morning to Columbus. For some bizarre reason our GPS took us as close as it could get to a straight line. We traveled a grand total of six miles on interstate highways, drove very little on national or state highways, and most of the time until we reached the Ohio border drove on West Virginia county “highways” and county “roads.” The difference between a West Virginia county highway and a county road is that the former has two lanes and is paved. The latter has one or one-and-a-half lanes and may be paved, gravel or mud.
The estimated time on the GPS for the 200-mile trip was about four hours. With only one short stop we made it in six-and-a-half. At one point along the way on one of the most isolated stretches on a county “road,” in just over an hour of driving mostly on one-lane, partially paved roads, we gained only five minutes toward our destination.
Ironically, this was the part of America we had missed on our 2016 road trip to California and back. The distances were just too far to spend much time meandering through the hinterlands. We saw some of this backwoods country on our Western trip but not as much as we saw on this single day in West Virginia. It was an eye opener. Amidst backdrop of misty, green mountains, gurgling brooks, and meadows covered with yellow and white wildflowers, around most bends in the bumpy road were mobile homes in disrepair and aging houses that looked like a strong windstorm might do them in. Many had several abandoned cars and pickup trucks in the front yard partially covered by weeds.
In the 1960s Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America, which described the prevailing poverty in the United States at the time. There was a chapter on Appalachian poverty, which had a great influence on me. The rural, White, poverty he described is probably greater now than it was in the 1960s given the demise of the coal mining industry.
As we bumped along it was not long before we saw our first Trump sign, followed in a mile or two by a house with a confederate flag, then in another mile a “Trump is MY president” flag, then a large flag with an AK 47 on it. These images were repeated the entire two hours we inched along on these desolate backroads winding through spectacularly beautiful fields and meadows, tall mountains on all sides and through deep woods.
The drive in Ohio was initially on main roads surrounded by vast farms with nice homes, but the next day when we set out to visit the Indian mounds, after a while we began to see more modest homes though not in as dire shape as we saw in West Virginia and with no sign of any Trump signs. That all changed, however, when we got on the Ohio backroads and into the hill country. When I noted to Embry that I was quite impressed that some homes had both “Trump is MY president” signs and Biden signs, suggesting to me the elusive tolerance and dialogue that seems to be so lacking today is actually happening in rural Ohio, she laughed, “Did you read the Biden signs? They all say, “Fuck Biden!”
So what is wrong with this picture? Here you have people without much money or hope for decent work, who would benefit from what Biden is proposing—increasing the minimum wage, free community college, free preschool, affordable childcare, stronger labor unions, more jobs for people without college educations, affordable housing and more affordable healthcare. Yet the people who would benefit the most from Biden’s legislative agenda see Democrats and Biden as the enemy. The person that they love, admire and will follow to the ends of the Earth was born with a silver spoon in his foul mouth with a billionaire for a father, who while he was president championed one of the biggest tax cuts for billionaires in the nation’s history. He did nothing for them, nothing.
What is going on?
What came to mind immediately was that we live in a bubble. I know I do. Embry and I have traveled all over the planet, visiting some 75 countries, and yet we found ourselves on these two days driving through the backwoods and farm lands of West Virginia and Ohio in a strange land that could have been in another country or perhaps on another planet. We “Coastal Elites,” as we are sometimes called, do not understand why we are hated by people whom we have not tried to harm and whom in principle we would like to help. Yet they are also people we do not understand. There is a culture war going on in our country, and it is far from over. Surely there are many factors—race, immigration, perceived downward mobility, perhaps jealousy. Many have suggested it has to do with lack of respect, “feeling dissed by elite snobs who look down their noses on those less fortunate.” Who knows? But surely, what I do know is that while many of us with advanced degrees, good professional jobs and financial security don’t get it, there is something going on here that is important, and we have got to figure it out and do something about it. The future of our country depends on it.
I think back on the experience Embry and I had living on Clay Street in 1970 and the book, Hard Living on Clay Street, that came out of it. We were so fortunate to get to know these people, who became our friends. They were strong, proud people but fighting lots of demons and dealt a hand of cards that did not provide a whole lot of options. I know that feeling dissed was a factor for many we knew on Clay Street then as it is now for a whole lot of people in the White working class. The main difference is that with Donald Trump, they have a “leader,” who provides a voice for their frustration, anger, and pain, even though in my view he is a fraud and con artist. I do not think there any easy answers for healing social class divisions in our country and realize that in some ways they are as insidious as racial prejudice. That does not mean we should turn our backs on it and give up. We must do better.
Next Installment: Leg two—the Indian mounds, the luxury B&B and the Haydaries.