ONE SCROLL. ONE THOUSAND FEET OF PAPER. ONE OBJECTIVE: BRAINSTORM FOR BETTER
MANUSCRIPT ACROSS AMERICA - OFFICIAL DOCUMENTARY
The Manuscript Across America documentary is finally here! Please set aside some time to watch the film with friends or family and share the link with as many people as possible. While the project has been the biggest challenge I've ever taken on, it's also been the most rewarding experience of my life to date. Thanks to everyone who helped make this wild dream a reality. We're more beautiful together!
Manuscript Across America - Unofficial Trailer
What's at the heart of Americans? A quick preview of the upcoming Manuscript Across America documentary that chronicles the 13,000-mile journey of a giant scroll of paper.
VIDEOS FROM THE ROAD
Selected interview clips and time-lapse movies from the Manuscript Across America journey. While we have tons of footage, we're lacking the time to put them together into clips that we can post online. I'll be adding more as soon as our schedule allows!
Manuscript Across America on the 2016 Presidential Race
Trump? Hillary? Bernie? Third Party? See what Americans across the country are saying about the 2016 Presidential Race. A three-minute preview of more exciting things to come with the Manuscript Across America documentary.
Flint, Michigan Interview with AllpointsTV
A guy named John Brent Wilson (AllpointsTV) approached me at the scroll table in Flint, Michigan and wanted me to explain the project. Here 'tis.
Manuscript Across America - Three Quick Clips
A thirty-second video highlighting interview clips from Albuquerque, Austin and Atlanta.
Manuscript Across America - Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Rallies Time Lapse
We set up the Manuscript Across America scroll at Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rallies on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. The transition from Bernie to Trump is at the 1:06 mark. Featured music is "Open up your Heart" by Handmade Moments.
Document the voices of Americans to investigate who we are and how to most effectively address the challenges facing our communities, the nation, humanity and the planet.
Inspired by five years of installing an interactive writing booth called "Step Write Up" at Santa Barbara's Lucidity Festival, Manuscript Across America takes the same concept - encouraging people to share their personal truths in hand-written form - to the next level.
Embarking from California in April, 2016, the Manuscript Across America team will venture to the East Coast and back again with a 1,000-foot long scroll of paper, collecting voluntary written contributions from people in cities, towns, slums, suburbs, farms, factories, wilderness areas and everything in between along the way.
As we travel in my VW van (say a prayer for her), we'll set up the scroll in public places and encourage people to think - and write about - the following questions: What piece of wisdom would you like to share with others? How can you make a positive impact on the world? What are the biggest challenges facing you and your community? Why do you live where you live? If you were President, what would your top priorities be? What does being an American mean to you? What are your biggest hopes and fears for humanity? What advice do you have for future generations? How do you interact with the natural world? If you could speak on behalf of the planet, what would you say?
While people will be free to write about whatever they are most passionate about, we're hoping that these questions act as a compass for mindful contributions. By engaging directly with Americans and allowing them this simple yet vital freedom of expression, we hope to uncover truths about who we are and strategies towards becoming who we want to be. Ambitious? Sure. Hopeful? You bet. Pointless? Well, there will certainly be those who make that argument, but I don't buy it. I've seen way too much beauty and progress come from the efforts of the underdog to believe otherwise.
The journey won't always be easy, and it certainly won't always be familiar. But, with the cameras rolling, Manuscript Across America will undoubtedly be an inspiring and provocative experience to share with others through a future documentary.
ROCK 'N SCROLL
The objectives of this journey include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
1) Encourage the public to reflect upon who we are as individuals, communities, a nation and inhabitants of the planet in an effort to inspire thought and action towards making positive changes at each level.
2) Explore differences and similarities of perspectives based on geography, economics, religion, race and culture.
3) Promote the act of writing by hand to remind people of the beauty and power of self-expression while reinforcing the notion that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
4) Create a tactile historical artifact of a people & place at a specific point in time.
5) Make a stand for the endangered arts of keeping a journal, writing letters, reading actual books, printing out photographs and preserving all mediums threatened to extinction by the digital age.
6) Remain open to the countless unexpected lessons we'll learn along the way.
BRIAN ALAN COE
I fell in love with writing around the age of sixteen and have been smitten with a strange but serious vernacular romance for as many years since. A graduate of Naropa Univerisity's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, it occurred to me that On the Road - and the massive manuscript that Kerouac wrote it on - must have been of pivotal subliminal influence in coming up with this idea.
While it's fair to say that I'm the primary person behind this project, I prefer to think/thank all of you as being the ones responsible for making Manuscript Across America happen - and of myself merely as the vessel for bringing your collective beauty to light.
PETER ROGAN BORAAS
You might not believe me until you meet him, but Peter is the most selfless man I've ever met. A dear friend and an ace with the camera, Peter will be a key figure in filming the road trip and bringing the documentary to the public. Still don't believe Peter's a saint? Just ask our furry little friend Izzy. She adopted him by walking straight up to his doorstep one day - and they've been inseparable ever since.
LAUREN DENISE SCOTT
This woman is a certified badass - a princess warrior if you will. She can climb rocks, ski steep powder, paddle out into waves above her head … and has even ridden a bicycle across the country. With a van to propel her this time around, Manuscript Across America should be a comparative breeze. Lauren will be meeting up with Peter and I in Austin, Texas and continuing on the journey through New Orleans and up the East Coast to the New England area. Can't wait to have her along for the ride!
BENNETT PAUL JONES
Bennett and I met in writing classes at Naropa University back in 2004. I liked the gritty, witty man right off the bat, but it took several months of hanging out for him to show me any further affection than, "You've got a lot of potential." Fortunately, I eventually made the grade, and we've been stirring up literary adventures ever since. We traveled through South America together in 2006 and wrote a collaborative journal of the entire escapade, branding ourselves cOejOnes (our last names) & founding a writing collective called "El Corriente." Bennett will be linking up with us in the New England area and traveling west all the way to Seattle.
JIMI "JIGME" MAGNER III
Nobody in my life has taught me the power of love more than this rare and luminous human being, so what better friend to have along for the journey? Sure to invoke unexpected insights in those he meets, Jimi will likely be as inspired by you as you are by him. Jimi will be joining me for the final leg of Manuscript Across America as we travel down the West Coast from Seattle to California.
SANTA BARBARA, CA - LUCIDITY FESTIVAL
The seeds of this holy-scrolly dream were planted at the first Lucidity Music & Arts Festival back in 2012. I was walking around the festival grounds in complete awe & admiration at the abundance of art & expression all around me. There were painters, sculptors, aerial artists, fire dancers, photographers, clothing designers, hula-hoopers & musicians everywhere I looked. What a beautiful representation of the arts! I was deeply inspired by this concentrated amalgamation of creativity & rather lost in appreciative reverie when it suddenly hit me: where was the written word? So many art forms had a slice of the pie, but where was the poetry, the storytelling, the books?
Several close friends had created the Lucidity Festival, so I took it upon myself to get involved and bring writing to the event. The following year, I launched the first "Step Write Up!" installation, a simple ten-by-ten-foot pop tent with blank walls for the pubic to write on. I didn't really know what kind of reaction it would get, but lo and behold, if you build it, they will come. By the end of the festival, the walls were filled with beautiful quotes, insights, jokes, ideas, prayers & personal truths.
I continued bringing Step Write Up to Lucidity for the next three years, but a couple things happened that would eventually lead to Manuscript Across America. First of all, people wanted to know what happened to the boards with all of the writing on them. I had photographed every contribution over the years, but all I had to show for it was a coffee table book of what a hundred or so people had written. The book was expensive to print & the four-by-eight-foot boards were difficult to share; a better alternative had to exist out there somewhere.
While Lucidity participants' written contributions were heartfelt & profound, I also realized that the scope of people writing on the Step Write Up boards was a narrow spectrum of humanity - primarily Californians between the ages of 18-40 who liked festivals. I'm not actually sure when the "Aha! moment" came to me, but I soon found myself making vague plans to purchase a huge scroll and take it on tour across the country to get a better representation of America at large. With a presidential election coming up in 2016, I also gave myself a deadline to get the scroll out on the road while the American public was still thinking more critically about their personal values than during non-election years. And thus, Manuscript Across America was born.
The first unrolling of the 1,000-foot long scroll took place April 8th - 10th at the 2016 Lucidity Festival. The stream of contributors over the weekend was almost constant, & I can't say how gratifying it was to look over & see so many people enthusiastically sharing their truths on paper. All I had to do was lay out the scroll & hang up some pens; our own human desire to express ourselves took care of the rest.
I'm guessing that Lucidity participants filled up somewhere around 70 feet of the scroll, an impressive blastoff for the manuscript that will soon travel over 10,000 miles with stops in more than 35 states. It was a pleasure to interact with people young & old, including a nine-year-old girl who wanted to change the world by committing her life to protecting the environment & a man in his sixties who had never been to a festival before.
I look forward to the journey that awaits. All of the unfamiliar people & places in this country that I have never met nor been to will surely stir something deep within me. Just like installing the first Step Write Up booth four years ago, I really have no idea what to expect. People's reactions to the project will vary, & their written contributions will be a reflection of cultures that are still largely a mystery to me. I do know that I believe in what I'm doing. I'm setting out on the road to inspire & be inspired, to dive headfirst into the unknown & let the dream chase me.
Lucidity Festival 2016 - Manuscript Across America Time-Lapse
Thanks to all you fine people who helped get the Manuscript Across America scroll off to a beautiful start!
BIG SUR, CA - HENRY MILLER LIBRARY
It was great to revisit the Henry Miller Memorial Library along the gorgeous California coast in Big Sur. The library itself is an inspiring collection of books, art, instruments, typewriters and treasures from around the world. I've even got a copy of my book, "The Mountain House & Thereabouts" floating around in there somewhere.
We enjoyed a mellow afternoon on the deck of the library "where nothing happens." I enjoyed meeting several thoughtful contributors, including a young girl from Tiburon, CA who drew a beautiful picture and wrote: "Stop the warway now. I am sick of it. All we need is love." Her father offered a thoughtful interview as well. There was also the disgruntled vet who wrote a 20-minute rant but cursed at me to turn off my camera the second I tried to film him. Fair enough.
Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Cancer, countless others) is hands-down one of my favorite writers. He not only wrote, but was a talented painter and pianist as well. Above all, I admire the way that he lived his life. So many of my literary heroes I love for the books that they wrote, but I can't fully endorse the decisions they made off the page. Henry Miller, you are amazing. Thanks to all in Big Sur who put their energy into making this place what it is - a true artistic gem.
Big Sur, California - Henry Miller Memorial Library Manuscript Across America Time-Lapse
We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California. Quite a change of pace from the frenetic happenings of Lucidity Festival, but the library is, after all, the place "where nothing happens." Thanks to all who contributed, and here's to one of America's greatest literary heroes! Quote in the video is from Henry Miller's "Sexus."
HIGHWAY ONE OF A KIND
California golden poppies in bloom just south of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Greetings! Peter and I made it to Las Vegas, Nevada late last night & had the scroll set up on the strip by 10 p.m. A strange sensation to unfurl a piece of paper for free expression in Sin City.
We chose a spot by the fountains at the Bellagio and waited to see how the project would be received. I was pleasantly surprised to strike up thoughtful conversations all night with a host of characters, including Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, former Showgirls, families with kids, locals, and travelers from Germany, Finland, England and all over the United States - all of whom wrote on the scroll. One of the former showgirls may have said it best: "Las Vegas is a small town in a big city."
It was fascinating to engage with so many strangers and learn about what living and working in Las Vegas is really like. Taking the time to truly connect with others was a new Las Vegas experience for me, but it paid dividends - quite literally. I made several new friends and received invitations to stay with folks back in their home towns. A guy named Jet was deeply moved by our efforts to cultivate community & understanding. When I told him we were going to head back to the van to sleep in a parking garage pretty soon, he rolled his eyes and reached into his pocket and gave me a $100 casino chip to help fund the project. Good people out there, you just gotta take the time to be genuine.
We interviewed some insightful homeless people in the wee hours of the morning and finally retired to the Vansion to get some rest. The night yielded new knowledge, new connections and new respect for a place I had largely overlooked on previous trips as a place where personal contact wasn't possible.
Granted, several people were convinced that the scroll was just another way to make money. "How much to write something down?" one guy asked. People weren't used to seeing free, voluntary writing experiments on the strip, but they dug it. I ended up adding my own two cents to the scroll as well: "I know they call this Sin City, but I see an awful lot of light shining through the darkness."
Overall, a great kick-off to Manuscript Across America's first out-of-California installation. We even managed to leave the next morning with more money than we had come with. Viva Las Vegas!
STILL SEARCHING FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM...
We had the scroll set up on the Las Vegas Strip between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on a Thursday night. A rather different installation than folks were used to seeing out there, but very well received nonetheless.
OUR FIRST CELEBRITY SCROLL SIGNING!
Mickey Mouse got in on the scroll signing action. As a side note, somebody posed for a picture with Mickey just after this and the mouse asked them for a donation. They accidentally put a handful of coins in our own contribution "Loot Boot" before realizing it pertained to Manuscript Across America. The coins were too difficult for the lady to remove from the jar in our boot, so she said we could just have it. This is how we got our first on-site contribution for the project!
A nice family took some time to write on the scroll. The boy wrote, "I like poop." The mother read it and said, "Oh, come on, you can do better than that!"
With the Bellagio fountains in the background and a host of colorful characters wandering the strip, we had a successful, engaging night in Las Vegas.
Having Peter's adorable mini Australian Shepherd named Izzy out and about on the Manuscript Across America scroll table definitely helped lure in more contributors!
Jet (the guy in the middle) gave Manuscript Across America a $100 casino chip to cash out in support of the project. More importantly, he gave us the enthusiasm and encouragement we were hoping to find in Sin City.
ELOQUENT ELEGANCE - MANUSCRIPT ACROSS AMERICA ON THE LAS VEGAS STRIP
Allison and Kelsey both live and work in Las Vegas. They voluntarily came up to write on the Manuscript Across America scroll and then gave me an extremely thoughtful three-minute interview. This is the last minute of that interview in which I pose the question: "What does America need right now?" The voice in the background at the start of the clip says, "I hope you don't say Trump."
GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA
We slept in the van in a parking garage on the Las Vegas Strip. We ended up interviewing homeless people on the street until 4 a.m., so didn't have the most restful night. We left early the next morning and made it to the Hoover Dam by noon. From there it was on to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were happy to hang out with Peter's friend Will. He hosted us for the night and shared his film-making knowledge with us. We could tell from our dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant that Flagstaff is indeed a close-knit community.
After one night in Flagstaff, we drove north to the Grand Canyon and had the scroll set up at an overlook for several hours during the afternoon. We left right around sunset and drove until 3 a.m. to make it to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The pace of this journey is really fast, but really beautiful. Onward we go!
The road team at the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada & Arizona. We took a slight detour out of Las Vegas on our way to Flagstaff to see this impressive and implication-rich national monument.
WHERE'S THE WATER?
A whole lotta water puddles up behind the Hoover Dam, turning the Colorado River into the massive Lake Mead Recreational Area.
Understandably, the U.S. Government is careful to guard the site that provides millions of people with drinking water & enough hydroelectric power to light up Las Vegas.
Yes, the times they are a changing. This is the world we live in.
Our third state of the journey.
WILL'S HOUSE - FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA
Peter met Will up in Alaska and will be salmon fishing with him in the Last Frontier this summer. Will (on the right) was kind enough to put us up at his house in Flagstaff, Arizona for the night. He taught us a few tricks of the documentary trade, most gratefully received.
Here I am in Flagstaff trying to keep up with the ever-overflowing bucket of photographs, videos, journal entries, experiences and information.
CANYON OF GRANDEUR
Truly a place that takes your breath away.
GRAND CANYON MANUSCRIPT TIME-LAPSE
Enjoy this time-lapse from Manuscript Across America's Grand Canyon installation!
Wow. Peter got this classic shot of Izzy.
MODIFIED PETROGLYPHS ON CLIFFS
Super cool to revisit the Grand Canyon and have so many enthusiastic participants write on the scroll.
MANUSCRIPT ACROSS THE WORLD
Just like Las Vegas, we got written contributions from a nice international crowd at the Grand Canyon.
AMAZING PLACES, AMAZING FACES
Loving the opportunity to meet so many new people.
SISTER SCROLL SIGNING
A family from Arizona visits the Grand Canyon for the first time & leaves their mark on the scroll.
Grand Canyon, check. We drove until 2 a.m. the following night to make it to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The pace of travel is fast, the road is long, but the journey is a mysterious unfolding of something good. We learn as we go. We roll with the unexpected. We're grateful for the opportunity.
ON THE RUN
We pulled off the highway just after sunset and ran about a mile to catch a glimpse of the Little Colorado River before the day's last light faded away. On to Albuquerque!
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
The miles, smiles, faces, places, gas stations, laughs, interviews, interactions, insights & interstates blur together in a beautiful whirl of movement.
Movement! I wish we had more time to linger in each town – to mingle with locals for long, lazy hours & learn each intricate truth to the depth it deserves. Sadly, our ambitious itinerary simply doesn’t allow for such luxuries. It’s a double-edged sword, I suppose. On the sharp & shiny side, we get a snapshot of more than 35 states in two months. – a chance to see a huge chunk of this country & connect with as many people & places as we can. On the sword’s less glamorous edge, we’re forced to skim over so many captivating stories that it is, quite literally, painful.
Yesterday, for example, we met an amazing woman who lives & works at a vegan farm in the mountains outside of Albuquerque. They grow all of their own food and rescue animals who would otherwise be raised for human consumption. She invited us to come tour the farm & even offered to cook us up a nice vegan meal. Great stuff, right? With more time, we surely would have gone, but the detour wasn’t feasible with eleven hours between us & Austin. As it is, I’m typing this in the passenger seat at half-past-midnight as Peter captains our ship southeast towards the Texas capital.
Which brings up another point: the data! Holy crumplecakes. We’re constantly filming, photographing, audio-recording & writing. When we finish the day or night’s official scroll set-up, we return to wherever it is that we’re staying and load the material onto our computers. Then we back it all up, twice, on two separate portable hard drives. Then we go through the footage, select the best photos, edit a couple interviews & compile time-lapse movies. From there it’s on to Facebook to share the journey on the Manuscript Across America page. Then I do it all over again on the official website for the folks that don’t have Facebook. When that’s done, I pull out my journal or computer and try to wrap my head around what’s happened, let alone what’s happening. Then I look up from the screen just in time, just now, to glance an incredible mural that Peter spotted of an eagle with the American and Texas flags as wings, “In God We Trust” painted in the center. “Should we do it?” asks Peter. “We gotta,” I say. So we pull off the road in the sleepy town of Lampasas & set up the cameras for some shots. We put the camera timer on and ran up to the mural, leaping in the muggy Texas night for a series of pictures as we giggled at the absurdity of what we were doing. These are the moments I crave – the random detours to stop & appreciate beauty for longer than a 75-mile-per-hour frantic out-of-focus drive-by clip of the West Texas oil fields or wind turbines or migrant workers or general stores or Billy the Kid museums.
But there are nuggets. Plenty of them. We lucked out in Albuquerque and met Don Schrader, perhaps the most well-known man in the entire city. He lives simply – hasn’t paid taxes or ridden in a car in decades. He survives on less than $5,000 per year and lives incredibly well. Skin leathered with sunshine & eyes full of wisdom. He had a little hand-cart full of thirty or so Granny Smith apples from the flea market. What a guy. He was more than happy to sit down with me for an interview and we chatted for a good twenty minutes after that. These are the moments I crave.
I’ve taken on a lot. There’s no way to capture everything. Even when it is documented, it’s a challenge to frame the shot right, make sure the audio is set up correctly, hold the camera still & control the hundred other variables that end up making the difference between a quality documentary & an hour-long YouTube video. I have to shake my head & laugh when I think about the reality of this odyssey. Sure, I’ve got a pretty good grasp on photography, but making a movie is an entirely different can of worms – a can that I had scarcely put the opener to before promising folks a documentary & writing up an itinerary that even the most driven traveling musicians would likely dismiss as ridiculous.
Who’s idea was this anyway? Oh right. I’ve been overwhelmed more times than I can count, but I’ve been overjoyed enough for that not to matter. I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m plunging headfirst into the unknown with nothing more than a dream to guide me. I’m challenging myself to share as much truth & beauty as physically & mentally possible without losing my own precious mind.
Don’t worry about me, though. It’s 1:41 a.m. and there’s a country song on the radio called “Must Be Doing Something Right.” And I must be. We must be. Because otherwise why would I be wide awake, inspired & full of optimism as we enter the eleventh hour of Texas travel? That’s just it – the traveling. It stirs something within you. Even if the pace is frantic, even if a billion incredible stories go untold, even if every conceivable aspect of this journey goes incredibly wrong, it doesn’t matter. We’re doing something: write. We’re doing something, right? We’re doing something right.
FRIENDS & FAMILY
Our dear friend Kori graciously put us up at his house in Albuquerque for two nights. He's pictured here with his son, Niko.
The scroll rolls on. We left Albuquerque around noon and realized we didn't have anywhere to stay in Austin, Texas. A quick Facebook post and a few hours of driving later and we suddenly had a dozen viable options of generous friends of friends who were happy to put us up. We arrived at 2 a.m. and met our hosts, trusting folks who led us to a little shack behind their main house that was built as an Army barracks in the 1930s in Fort Hood and relocated to Austin in the 1960s.
We got a good night's rest and caught up on uploading photos at a cool little cafe. I picked Lauren up at the airport at noon and we made it down to Barton Springs for a well-needed swim. We checked out the downtown area that night, ate dinner, and headed home. A thunderstorm rolled through in the middle of the night, drenching our dreams in lightning.
The next morning we ate breakfast with my parents' former pastor, a kind man named Terry who also gave us a thoughtful interview. From there we took the scroll to the pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River alongside Lamar Street. Lauren had spotted the location the previous day, and it turned out to be an ideal spot for the Manuscript Across America scroll.
Austin is an awesome city, but it's worlds away from the mindsets of the majority of Texas. We talked to several mindful people who further explained that Austin is a liberal oasis in a conservative state. We heard about a town outside of Houston that's one of the most racist places in America and another town near Dallas that's completely powered by wind and solar energy, but the decision is based entirely on economical reasoning with no appreciation for the environmental benefits.
We enjoyed a few hours on the bridge with several awesome interviews and engaging interactions. By mid-afternoon it was on the road again, east on Interstate 10 towards Lake Charles, Louisiana...
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Ah, New Orleans! We spent our first night in Louisiana in Lake Charles, graciously hosted on short notice by the parents of our dear friend Tommy. We chatted late into the night and for several hours the following day about the old ways of the bayou - including the shrimping business, fishing, hunting, trapping, the impacts of magnesium mining, and, of course, several hilarious stories about Tommy. We also visited a nearby relative who built the Guinness Book of World Records longest porch swing (pictured below).
From there it was on to New Orleans - a city none of us had ever been to before. We stayed with a friend there as well, enjoying a deluge of live music from Thursday thru Sunday. We attended two days of Jazz Fest, the second of which was the biggest rainstorm I've ever been in. Some of the festival ended up having to be called off, but we made the most of it anyway. It's impossible to actually miss out on music in New Orleans - the shows go all night. An incredible electric guitar player no more than thirteen years of age joined a band on stage until past 4 a.m.
We set up the scroll near Frenchmen Street on Sunday night outside of a place called the R-Bar, enjoying a steady stream of curious, and sometimes inebriated, contributors. As with every city, it's hard to get a full vibe of its personality in a single location, but we did get a good ratio of locals to tourists considering the influx of outsiders for Jazz Fest.
On Monday morning we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit places by Hurricane Katrina. As we drove, we listened to an episode of "This American Life" that told first-person accounts of the devastation. A pretty heavy download of sights and information, but a valuable experience to witness the ongoing aftermath of such a catastrophe first-hand.
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI UNIVERSITY
We ended up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi around lunch time and took the scroll onto the campus at Southern Mississippi University for a few hours. Getting folks engaged was a bit more of a challenge than at other locations, but we mustered some quality interactions nonetheless.
After a delicious barbecue dinner in Tuscaloosa, Alabama the three of us spent the night in the van down an unknown road outside of town. While searching for a spot to sleep, we nearly got the van stuck in some thick mud but managed to rev vanannigans out of there. The following morning, we pulled off in Birmingham, Alabama with the intention of setting up the scroll. While we were too road-weary and time-pressed (we had to get to the Amy Goodman event in Atlanta that evening) to set it up in the end, we did pay a visit to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a major hub of both tragedy & progress during the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AMY GOODMAN (DEMOCRACY NOW!) PRESENTED BY WRFG 89.3 FM
We have all been fans of Amy Goodman for quite some time now. For those of you who don't know who she is, Amy is the host of an NPR news program called Democracy Now. As part of their 20th anniversary of covering events not given much (or any) airtime by mainstream media, they are on a 100-city tour of the United States that makes me feel a lot better about Manuscript Across America's itinerary.
Upon arriving at the VIP reception that we had bought tickets for, I asked about possibly setting up the scroll. I had already corresponded via telephone and email about such a possibility, but it wasn't until I was talking face-to-face with Joan (one of the key figures at WRFG Atlanta 89.3 FM - the station that put on the event) that the intention of our project finally clicked as being a perfect fit for the reception. The whole crew welcomed us in with open arms and we met a host of beautiful individuals who are all active promoters of peace, justice, equality, fair media and community in Atlanta and beyond. A woman named Inga invited me to speak on her WRFG radio program, and we have since confirmed that I will be on their show to talk about Manuscript Across America next Friday, May 13th between noon and 1 pm Eastern time.
We got a chance to chat with Amy Goodman and she was kind enough to pose for a few pictures with the team and even sign the scroll. Her speech after the reception was held upstairs at the First Iconium Baptist Church and was, hands down, one of the most inspiring orations I've ever had the privilege of listening to.
Afterwards, we set up the scroll outside on the sidewalk and received an hour's worth of enthusiastic contributions from attendees of the event. Another woman named Tassili invited us to set up the scroll the following day at either her restaurant (Raw Reality) or her sister Ifini's food co-op (Sevananda Natural Foods Market). We graciously accepted her offer and ended up at Sevananda the next day.
What a powerful and inspiring visit to Atlanta! I have to say that of all the places Manuscript Across America has been thus far, the people in Atlanta whom we interacted with understood it the best. Sure, it helped that we were set up in front of a food co-op as opposed to a random street corner downtown, but wow! We had strangers invite us to stay in their homes, invitations to appear on radio shows, deep conversations about community and the nation, profound realizations on both sides and a renewed sense of purpose for our journey.
We ended up at the Sevananda Natural Foods Market because of an interaction with a woman named Tassili the night before. She suggested that we set up at her sister Ifini's co-op, which is exactly what we did. An awesome experience to show up in a city without knowing a soul and leave feeling like we have friends and allies for life. Thank you Atlanta!
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA - BERNIE SANDERS RALLY
We were at a friend's house in Asheville, North Carolina perusing the Internet late on Wednesday night when Lauren made a pivotal discovery: "Donald Trump has a rally in Charleston, West Virginia tomorrow night," she said. "And Bernie Sanders has a rally in the same town starting at noon." I was incredulous. "Seriously!? How did we not know about this?" I stammered. "Because you never checked." This was true. But it wasn't too late. We checked the drive time from Asheville to Charleston and learned that it was just five hours away. "We can do this," I said. "I mean, we've got to do this. I'll go tell Peter."
We awoke at 5:30 a.m. the following morning and drove up and over the Smokey Mountains through beautiful countryside, a thin mist clinging to the dips in the rolling landscape. As the sun came up we were passing through Appalachian farmlands and churches in golden green meadows between the endless trees. By noon we had made it through North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, arriving at the South Charleston Community Center just in time for the doors to open up for a crowd of several hundred people waiting in the parking lot.
We approached some official-looking people at the entrance and met a woman named Jean, asking her if it was okay if we set up the scroll. "Oh, that would be wonderful!" she said. "But I have to check with the Secret Service." She consulted several federal agents, cops and security guards inside and came back out with an enthusiastic thumb's up. "You can do it!"
Wasting no time, we ran back to the van, pulled out the massage table, dowels, banner, duffel bag with the scroll and several backpacks full of camera gear, setting up the Manuscript Across America table in a frantic but organized Daytona 500 pit-crew/fire-drill style that by now had become a pretty well-oiled maneuver. The moment that we got all the pens out on the table, they opened the doors for the crowd to file in. Fortunately, everybody had to pass through metal detectors at the doors, so the line moved slowly enough for us to interact with most everyone as they passed by.
People were happy to see us out there and anxious to share their thoughts about Bernie Sanders and their hopes for what he would bring to their community. Many West Virginians had concerns about the environment, several folks mentioned wanting cleaner drinking water, and a handful of mothers and fathers expressed concerns about their children having a viable future. We interviewed a guy who was tired of corruption in the government and another woman who was brought to tears when asked about her daughter. "Save us Bernie!" was a common theme, voiced with a hopeful desperation as if there was no other path to salvation.
Jean came running back up to us at the table. "I've got good news!" she said. "I've reserved three seats just for you in the VIP section." We thanked her for her overwhelming kindness. To put the cherry on top, she even invited us to stay in her home in Floyd, Virginia if we needed a place to stay.
We hustled to take down the scroll table and stash everything back in the van so it would be ready to take to the Trump rally across town a few hours later. I was able to get through security with two cameras, three lenses and an audio recorder. Their only stipulation was that tripods weren't allowed. Easy-peasy. Jean escorted us to our VIP seats to the right of the podium and we mingled with locals as a representative to the state legislature played guitar and sang for the crowd. "Country Roads" was a hit, with extra emphasis on the "West Virginia, mountain momma" part of the chorus.
Bernie came to the stage with an uproarious welcome from the crowd, though there couldn't have been any more than 1,000 people in the gymnasium-type setting with 20 - 16 in red letters on the scoreboard. His speech was moving - a series of peaks and valleys that always came to a crescendo of applause and the unanimous raising of "A Future to Believe In" signs. He spoke about making healthcare available, honoring Native Americans, increasing jobs, promoting education and even gave Peter a shout-out with his "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for Bernie" sign.
Two-thirds of the way through the speech, Lauren let me know that if we wanted to get to the Trump rally, we'd have to leave now. We did want to get to the leading Republican's event - not to support it, but to experience the other side of the coin first-hand. Our journey had been largely defined by liberal - but beautiful - interactions up to this point, and it was time to get a sense of the opposite extreme.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA - DONALD TRUMP RALLY
It was about a ten-minute drive from the Bernie Sanders rally to the Charleston Civic Center where Donald Trump was holding his own West Virginia event, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world. The sensation was like leaving the beach in a slight breeze and being swept up by a tornado a few blocks inland.
We managed to find a parking spot in a multi-level garage and scrambled to get all the scroll table gear assembled once again, this time bringing the pop-tent as well to protect the manuscript from the rain. An endless line of people had formed at the entrance to the Civic Center that newspaper's had said could hold up to 15,000 people. We began to set up the table under the awning by the front entrance. A few seconds later, private security and several cops were shooing us away from the door, notifying us that we couldn't be there. "It's just a community writing project," I explained. "We're taking a thousand-foot scroll across the country and letting people share their thoughts on it." "Well you can't do it here," they said. I instructed Lauren to start filming and pleaded with the cops a little longer. Eventually they struck a compromise with me, saying that we could set it up a short distance away, as long as it was off the curb and not under the awning. Right on cue, the rain stopped falling and we seized the opportunity to set up shop, front and center.
It took a moment to get the ink flowing from the Trump train, but the second the first pen hit the scroll, it was nonstop action for hours. Once the written contributions started pouring in, people assumed that Manuscript Across America was some sort of pro-Trump petition. To be fair, several people at the Bernie rally thought that we were following Bernie across the country and setting up the scroll at all of his events. Nevertheless, a rather frantic stream of Trump supporters shuffled up to the scroll, picked up a pen, left their mark, and hustled off into the rally. There were plenty of "Build that wall" comments, an abundance of anti-Hillary sentiments, and no shortage of pro-life and pro-God inkings. More common than any actual response to the questions I was asking, though, was that people just signed their names.
I began filming short interviews with the folks as they passed by the scroll. "What do you think America needs most right now?" I would usually begin with. "Trump" was the unanimous answer to this one. "Why Trump?" I would ask. "Because Trump." That happened a lot. But there were, of course, several more thoughtful answers. The vast majority of Trump supporters were hopeful that he would bring an abundance of jobs back to the state that has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation - specifically by expanding West Virginia's coal industry. Another common response was that America needed a real leader - a charismatic wildcard - to instill all of those values that had fallen by the wayside like Christianity, strict border control and an even stronger military.
A teenager came up to the scroll, confided in me that he still wasn't sure who he was going to vote for, then wrote "Never Trump" and walked away. Moments later, a ten-year-old girl crossed out his contribution and left her own.
The line of people was relentless. There were literally thousands upon thousands of individuals who passed by, many of whom wrote something down. We had to roll out over sixty feet of paper to keep up with the incoming ink. It was also fascinating to notice that more than half of our Sharpies were ruined in the process - either by being taken, driven so hard into the table that they no longer worked, or dropped into puddles on the street. True, people were in a bit of a rush to get inside the rally, but we had also crossed the entire country without so much as losing a single pen cap. At the Trump rally, nine of our pen caps vanished in three hours.
It's hard to put into words the feelings that were elicited in me throughout the event. I tried to approach the rally with an open mind, and did my best to engage people as I had done at any other stop along the Manuscript Across America tour. I'm not trying to pass judgement on Trump supporters or republicans in general, but the experience was so drastically different than any other place that we had set up the scroll that it does give me pause to think. I don't want to say that what I witnessed was ignorance, but it's hard to come up with another word for the responses I got from some - but certainly not all - of the people I tried to converse with. I respect that people have different values in this country. I respect that people's political, environmental, economical, social and religious agendas are all different. What I can't respect, no matter how hard I try, is when people can't respect one another.
I didn't show up to the Trump rally with disrespect in my heart. Yes, I will most certainly admit that I showed up with a long list of stereotypes that I was anxious to see come to life before my eyes, but as much as I had expectations for how a certain facet of Americans would act, I was willing, for the most part, to honor those differences. But the aspect of some of the people in attendance that I didn't, nor can't, nor won't ever understand, is the hate.
I witnessed hate of all types at the Trump rally. Hate based on race. Hate based on religion. Hate based on gender. Hate based on sexual orientation. This is what I can't come to terms with. It angers me. It saddens me. It downright scares me.
A small group of Trump protestors showed up just before we were about to leave. The Civic Center had already closed its doors with a max-capacity crowd of 15,000 people inside, but there were still more folks outside who would have liked to go in. The protestors held up a variety of signs and accused the Trump supporters of being fascists and nazis while the Trump people accused the protestors of being communists. The yelling escalated. Racial slurs. Middle fingers. Hot tempers on both sides. How polarized are we as a nation? How polarized are we as a global community? The scene was frightening. While I can see where the protestors are coming from, I can't say that they were speaking out in the most tactful or respectful way. They were antagonizing the opponent in a way that demanded confrontation.
I'm still digesting. I'm still processing. Today has been the first day I've been able to actually slow down and reflect since we left California. I keep thinking of one of the protestor's signs that read, "Make America hate again." I get it. There's a whole lot of ugly coming out of the woodwork as a byproduct of the Trump campaign. But no matter what side you're on, no matter how different we are, we have to find a way to respect one another or there's not going to be anyone left to hate in this world.
SENECA ROCKS, WEST VIRGINIA
I saw a guy filming the protestors at the Trump rally that looked like an ally. He introduced himself as Chad and I wasted no time cutting to the chase: “So, I don’t exactly want to invite myself to stay at your house, but we don’t have anywhere to sleep in Charleston tonight and, well, I guess I’m inviting myself to stay at your house.”
Incredibly, Chad was game to host Peter, Izzy, Lauren and I without any further inquiries. He put us up in a camper trailer in his back yard, replete with wifi and a desk to catch up on computer stuff. We ended up staying a second night at his home as well, gifting him a copy of my Mountain House book and supplying a pizza party for him, his wife and their two daughters as a showing of our gratitude.
We sat around the fire and listened to their thoughts on West Virginia. Chad works full-time for an organization that’s trying to shut down coal mining in the state and explained that the mining is incredibly detrimental to the environment. He also explained the hypocrisy of the Trump supporters who feel that coal mining will be their savior.
“Coal mining production has been going up in West Virginia for decades on end,” he said. “The real problem for the folks that are losing their jobs is that humans are being replaced by machines.”
Well rested and ready for the road, we set out to the north, vaguely planning on spending the night camping somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. We stopped at a massive bridge (the longest steel arch bridge in the country) spanning New River and interviewed a guy who had mined coal in West Virginia for 36 years. He had contracted black lung through his work and had even pulled dead friends out from underneath the mountains. In spite of this, he was an adamant Trump advocate and wanted desperately for the state to amp up their coal mining efforts. His illness and lost friends didn’t even come close to swaying his opinion.
Several scenic hours of driving later, we pulled off the road in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia before we even knew the town had a name. A group of hunters drinking beer from the tailgate of a pickup truck had caught our eye. They were a lively bunch – a bit buzzed from the alcohol and still glowing from the three-day shooting competition that had just wrapped up.
I explained the project we were doing and asked if they’d be interested in sharing their thoughts about America in an interview.
“Oh sure!” one of the guys replied. “We’ve got a lot to say.”
We chatted for twenty minutes or so as they drank beer, smoked cigarettes and exalted the only adolescent there – a twelve-year-old boy – for evidently being the best shooter of the entire bunch over the weekend. The group had a wide geographic spread, including folks from Michigan, Ohio and Canada. One of the Michigan guys remarked that Americans needed to get back to their roots of hard working, industrious, independent types. Another said that the Second Amendment was just as important as the first – perhaps even more so. The Canadian thought that it shouldn’t be such a pain in the ass to become an American citizen. But he did think that Americans would benefit from having to take the same test that he had to pass in order to get in. The young boy had a one-syllable explanation for what America needed most: “Trump.”
Lauren had wandered off and found out that there was a kick-off party for the rock climbing season that night. The town – more like a general store, a bar, and a restaurant – wasn’t home to many folks at all, but a crowd of fifty or so people had formed for the party. We talked to Arthur, the owner of the rock climbing store and organizer of the event, and he enthusiastically invited us to set up the scroll.
“We’ve got three kegs and a ton of tacos,” he said. “Help yourselves to whatever you’d like. I’ll give you the microphone in a bit so you can make an announcement.”
Without further ado, we had the scroll set up, full cups of Arthur’s homemade hard cider and plates full of tacos. Southern hospitality had extended to northern West Virginia.
The town of Seneca Rocks is known for its climbing – specifically the namesake rock formation that is the highest point east of the Mississippi River that can only be accessed by technical climbing. Two giant pinnacles rise from a lush green meadow and the one on the right – the north spire – is a coveted ascent for such a distinction.
Given that the crowd was entirely climbers, most of the written contributions were about getting outside more, pushing your personal comfort zone and appreciating nature. We interviewed a well-lubricated Arthur and his go-to statement was, “America needs to take a deep breath.” He elaborated by saying that Americans should be more grateful for the opportunities and freedoms they have in this country.
I had been running back and forth to the van most of the night, working on the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump rally time-lapse on my laptop. Suddenly it was past midnight and the three of us – rather lit up ourselves – decided we’d better get to bed if we were hoping to make it to a 10 a.m. brunch with one of Peter’s friends in Washington D.C. the next morning.
Bed, on this particular night, was the Vansion. We took down the pop-tent that had been protecting the scroll from the rain, hustled our gear to the van, brushed our teeth with water from the Sevananda Co-Op in Atlanta and retired for the night.
We rolled the scroll, table and duffel bags down Pennsylvania Avenue to the front entrance of the White House, careful not to leave any of our gear unattended for fear of triggering a reaction from the Secret Service. I chatted with one of the agents and got permission to set up the table on the far side of the street. She wrote down some notes on her official pad: "Manuscript Across America. 1,000-foot scroll. 3 hours." As we were setting up the scroll, a different Secret Service agent came up to us. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, guys. A thousand feet of paper? That's going to take up a lot of real estate." We laughed and explained that all but six of those thousand feet would be neatly rolled up on either side of the table. "Do you guys have a D.C. permit?" he asked. "No," we replied. "No problem," he said. "Enjoy."
We got a diverse range of contributions from the public over the course of 3-4 hours in front of the White House, including a man from Mexico City who called Trump's proposed wall "ridiculo" and a well-informed couple from the U.K. who called Hillary a "twat" and Trump a "wanker." When we asked what they thought about Bernie Sanders, they both tilted their heads in confusion. "Who is that?" they both said. "We've never heard of him."
I interviewed a man that has been camped out in front of the White House off and on with a small team of allies since 1981, promoting world peace and protesting nuclear energy. The original permit that was issued for the encampment by Jimmy Carter had a small oversight: it didn't include an expiration date. As long as somebody is constantly attending the small protest site, the government cannot shut it down.
An elderly man came up to the scroll and loved the idea of the project. "This is wonderful," he said. "I'm going to write you guys a check." I started thinking to myself: this could be our big break! He pulled out his checkbook, wrote a check and handed it to me. I put it in my pocket, resisting the temptation to look at the amount to be polite. I thanked him for his generosity and he walked on down the road. I pulled out the check, expecting to see a number well over $1,000. It turned out to only be for $500 - still a huge help. I looked again. Oops. I hadn't seen the decimal. It was a check for $5. It took me a moment, but I realized that this was still an offering to be most grateful for. I also noticed that he had forgotten his walking cane at the table. I picked it up, ran down Pennsylvania Avenue, caught up with the man and returned his cane. "Senile," he said. "Thank you very much. Good luck."
I was jogging back towards the scroll when a burly Secret Service agent stepped out in front of me. "Hey!" he said, stopping me in my tracks. My heart sank. I hadn't done anything wrong, as far as I knew at least, but it's certainly not a good feeling to get accosted by government officials in front of the White House. "That was awesome," he said. "What was awesome?" I asked, rather out of breath. "Returning that man's cane. I saw the whole thing." "Oh," I said. "Thanks."
We got to chatting and I invited the Secret Service agent to come write on the scroll. "Oh, I'm afraid I can't do that while I'm on duty," he said. "Though I'd like to. So, what's the consensus out there, anyway?" I explained that we had spoken to Trump, Bernie and Hillary supporters that day, but more than supporters of any one candidate, we had found that most people were pretty disenchanted with all three.
"Yup," he said, looking over his shoulder at the White House. "It looks like it's either going to be Hillary or Trump in there. God save us all."
It was right around noon when we arrived in Baltimore, Maryland after a morning of sightseeing and interviewing 8th graders on their school field trips at the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
We met up with a friend of Peter’s named Will for a pizza lunch downtown. Peter suggested that I give Will a copy of the book that I wrote called “The Mountain House & Thereabouts” since Will used to live at the aforementioned property in Santa Barbara. I signed a copy for him and asked about suggestions for places to set up the scroll in Baltimore.
“Actually, you know what you guys should do is go down to the courthouse where one of the officers is on trial involving the death of Freddie Gray.”
The timing of our visit to Baltimore was impeccable. And the circumstances of the book exchange also raised an eyebrow or two for me. I had named myself “Freddie Gray” in the book I had completed several years before the Baltimore resident with the same name had been arrested and placed in the back of a van with handcuffs and leg shackles on. Police officers drove him recklessly around the city without a seatbelt in a practice known as “rough riding.” Gray was tossed around the back of the police van until he eventually sustained injuries to his spinal cord that led to his death seven days later on April 12, 2015. A series of protests, looting and violence swept over Baltimore in weeks following Gray’s death, making Baltimore the next major epicenter in a long list of American cities to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
We drove to the downtown courthouse and had Lauren drop us off with the table and scroll as she looked for parking. A sheriff approached Peter and I while we were setting up and asked what we were doing.
“It’s just a writing project,” I explained. “We’re taking this scroll of paper across the country and letting people share their thoughts on it.”
“Is it a protest?” the sheriff asked.
“No, it’s just a piece of paper for people to write about whatever’s on their mind,” I said. “No agenda. Not a protest.”
I gave him a business card and he said we’d have to move to the corner of the street just up the block, to which we cordially obliged. The instant that we had the paper out on the table, folks started congregating. Fast. They wrote with an urgency I hadn’t witnessed yet on our trip and spoke to us with profound gratitude.
“You’re finally here!” they said. “Thank God. Somebody is finally giving us a voice. Nobody else is doing this. Thank you, thank you.”
The first six feet of the scroll filled up in no-time-flat. I unrolled a fresh sheet of paper and let the contributions keep pouring in. A man came up to the table and wrote “FACK DA POLICE” in big red letters. Lauren arrived moments later and hadn’t even had the time to look at the scroll when she invited two female police officers to write on it.
“Would you ladies care to share your thoughts?” she asked in sincere sweetness.
One of the officers glanced over at the scroll and saw “FUCK DA POLICE” big and bold, the only words on the fresh spread of white paper.
“Oh, I get it,” said the cop, laughing a bit to herself. “I see what’s going on here.”
Lauren and I looked at the scroll and realized what had happened. It was a rather humorous situation, and the cop had acknowledged that before walking away. Seconds later, a woman came up and wrote “Blue uniforms matter too!” right next to the red letters. We could have used her statement moments before!
It was clear that Baltimore was hurting. Somebody wrote “Pray for us. Baltimore needs it.” Others wrote “Stop the violence,” “Help out the homeless,” and “Stop racism and bigotry.” Most of my conversations centered around injustices and inequality.
The sheriff I had spoken with earlier motioned for me to come have a chat with him.
“I just spoke with the judge,” he said quietly. “And I was informed that you guys gotta go.”
“Alright,” I said. “We’ll go right now.”
“Good,” he said. “Did you get what you need?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re good.”
In hindsight, I kind of wish I would have asked him why exactly we were being asked to leave, but I didn’t want to make any waves. It had also just started to rain, so keeping the scroll out would have been complicated anyway. As we were taking down the table, a woman and I struck up a conversation that shed light on the situation.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Why are you guys taking this down? Everybody was loving it.”
“Everybody but the sheriff and the judge,” I said. “They said we had to go.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Same old story here in Baltimore. Silence the people. Suppress free speech. Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
She declined an interview, explaining that she was running for city council and it would complicate her campaign.
“I understand,” I said. “Well, hopefully you’ll be able to make some positive changes for this city soon.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We’ll see about that.”
We loaded up the scroll and table onto the dolly and rolled down old cobblestone streets to Independence Hall, the site where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were debated, drafted and signed.
Similar to setting up the scroll at places like the Grand Canyon and the White House, the majority of our written contributions were from tourists. The downside is that you don’t get much of a feel for the local population, but the cool thing is that you get to talk to people from all over the United States and all over the world in the course of a few hours.
I interviewed a man from China who loved America but also hoped that the two countries could give each other a big hug. As a symbol of my concurrence, I offered him a friendly embrace, which he kindly accepted. Three men from Barcelona, Spain approached the table shortly thereafter. It turns out they were at Independence Hall on official government business: an attempt to gain sovereignty for the Catalan people of northern Spain.
“What better place to discuss independence than Philadelphia?” one of the men stated. “We are trying to do what America did here back in 1776.”
He agreed to an interview and I asked him what he thought America could learn from Spanish culture.
“I would say America needs to get better at balancing work and play,” he said.
“”Indeed,” I agreed. “I think a little siesta would do America good.”
We rolled the gear back to the van and enjoyed some “traditional” style Philly cheese steak sandwiches with Cheese Whiz drizzled over the meat. I’m guessing that the Cheese Whiz tradition became a part of Philadelphia culture slightly after American independence did.
NEW YORK - MANHATTAN & BROOKLYN
It was after 9 p.m. by the time we arrived at Peter’s cousin’s house in New Jersey. We sat down in the living room and watched CNN footage of the West Virginia primaries in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both won by their respective parties. The amazing part was actually how much airtime they were giving Bernie Sanders considering how little media attention they typically give the Vermont senator compared to Trump and Hillary. He was speaking at a rally in Salem, Oregon at the time he learned of his West Virginia victory.
The day had been long but lucrative. We had woken up in Washington D.C. and then traveled through Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania to get to our current destination in New Jersey – a five state day with filmed interviews in three different major cities. The lasagna that Peter’s cousin fed us put us over the exhausted edge and we were soon fast asleep in separate guest bedrooms.
Incredibly, through either sleeping in the van or staying at houses with friends, family or strangers, we had only had to spend one night in a motel the entire way across the country. Even then, had we waited on booking a room until after setting up the scroll in Atlanta, we actually would have been able to stay with a woman who invited us to stay at her home within minutes of meeting her. I had pegged the United States to be a less welcoming country than others I have traveled through in the past, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find no shortage of trusting, loving folks in the states who are willing to open up their homes at a moment’s notice.
We woke up early the next morning to make the most of our first of two days in New York City. Following the advice of Peter’s cousin, we took the ferry across the Hudson River, catching sweeping views of the Big Apple from the top deck. The next phase of the trip – a public bus – was a bit more complicated considering our awkward load of a dolly, massage table, duffel bag with the fifty-pound scroll, four tripods and two backpacks full of camera gear, but we squeezed into our seats as other passengers gazed on incredulously. Twenty minutes later, we exploded onto the sidewalk where 6th avenue runs into Central Park and set up the scroll on an Upper Manhattan street corner a couple blocks away.
Everyone has heard the stereotypes about New Yorkers – that they move too fast, rarely make eye contact and consistently avoid unnecessary interactions with strangers. Unfortunately, our first hour on the street proved all of these preconceptions to be true.
“Hello! Would you like to share your thoughts on the scroll?” we’d say to hundreds of passers-by. They would then tilt their heads further down to the sidewalk and veer away from the message table to ensure a safe buffer. After countless rejections, a guy in his twenties finally came right up to the table.
“Can I buy a sharpie from you guys?” he asked.
“Only if you write on the scroll,” I said. “You can leave a dollar in the boot when you’re done.”
We put Izzy on top of the table to help lure more contributors our way. Our secret weapon worked. Slowly but surely, we started to get some quality interactions. A guy named Luigi wrote about Mayor Bloomberg’s exorbitant increase in wealth as a politician while his supposed salary as a “public servant” was just a dollar a day. In his interview, he introduced himself by saying, “Hi, my name is Luigi, and I’m a walking stereotype. I deliver pizzas in New York City.”
A woman came up to the scroll moments later and chatted with us for half an hour about her life before and after 9/11. She went into tremendous emotional detail about the experience itself. Her eyes watered up and her voice became a whisper as she recounted the happenings of that horrific day in American history. She talked about how she changed careers immediately after the incident, unable to justify her life in business anymore. She became a teacher instead, making drastic financial sacrifices in exchange for personal fulfillment.
In spite of a handful of provocative interactions, getting people to stop and talk on our Manhattan sidewalk was an uphill battle. We packed up the gear and walked a couple hundred feet to a pedestrian path within Central Park. Instantly, a group of people had formed around the scroll table and we were chatting with a steady stream of participants. It was rather mind-blowing to see how much the personality of the city changed from the street to the park. I guess it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that people in the park would be much more likely to take a moment to engage than people hustling down a city sidewalk, but the drastic difference was still a bit surreal.
We enjoyed a few hours in Central Park proper and then loaded up into a cab, bound for Union Square at the recommendation of several New Yorkers. Our cab driver was originally from India but had raised three kids in New York City and put them all through college. His story was a classic tale of the American Dream. He came to Manhattan with $20 to his name and slowly worked his way up to find a job, get married, have kids and fully support his family. His big break came early on when he moved a stranger’s car to keep him from getting a parking ticket. That stranger ended up offering him the job that opened up a series of doors, allowing him to eventually buy a home and raise a family in New York.
Union Square turned out to be the perfect destination for Manuscript Across America. Before we had even pulled out the scroll, strangers were pulling us aside with genuine curiosity, anxious to know what we were about to set up. The second the paper was unfurled, an enthusiastic group of contributors formed around the table and did not let up for the next five hours.
The creative energy of Union Square was inspiring. Artists drew portraits and abstract images, poets wrote original verses, and several dance troupes came grooving in and out of the plaza. We conducted dozens of interviews with people from a wide range of ages, races, religions and cultural backgrounds. Right as we were about to leave, a man named Chandra came up to me and asked for me to take his portrait. I pulled out my iPhone but he wouldn’t have it. He wanted a professional photograph taken of him, head to toe, with a specific statue and building in the background. He paid me $25 on the spot and gave me his sister’s address to mail the print to afterwards. Yet another beautiful, unexpected interaction.
We had to hustle to catch the ferry back to New Jersey before the last boat left at midnight. All of us were buzzing from such an engaging night in Union Square, but getting some sleep was a necessary priority.
The next morning, we drove into Manhattan and visited the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial, opting to neither set up the scroll or conduct interviews due to strict regulations at the site and out of respect for people’s right to experience the memorial without any outside pressures. In spite of this deference, it was a curious mix of people who were clearly deep in thought about what had taken place 15 years ago and whimsical tourists with cameras who acted like it was just another sightseeing attraction.
We walked down to Battery Park and gazed out at the Statue of Liberty, perhaps the most iconic symbol of America. We headed into Brooklyn next, taking a long walk through an interesting part of town and grabbing some Chinese takeout for lunch. Right as the sun was going down, we set up the scroll outside of a rather trendy bar and met up with an old high school buddy of mine named Chris. The contributions were rather few and far between, but we mustered some quality interviews nonetheless. At 8 p.m. we bid farewell to Peter, dropping him off at J.F.K. International Airport. I thanked him for his help, friendship and unconditional support of the project as he confessed he would have loved to stay on board for the entire journey. Nevertheless grateful to have had his company for a few weeks, Lauren and I pointed the van north and set out towards Rhode Island.
PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
Lauren and I drove north out of New York City through much of the night, finally arriving at our friend's house in Matunuck, Rhode Island around 2 a.m. I heard Randall and Rose going to work around 7 a.m. the next morning and mustered a "Hey! Randall! Rose! Good morning." from the pop-top of the van. Sadly, that was all we got to see of our hosts. I would have loved to stay, chat, hang out, surf and play music, but our schedule - as it has done everywhere - forced us to move on before they got back from work later that afternoon.
We drove about an hour to Providence, Rhode Island where I called in to WRFG Atlanta and had an on-air conversation about Manuscript Across America. I was grateful to have the opportunity to share my story on the radio with the kind people whom I had met at the Amy Goodman event ten days earlier.
After a quick lunch, we set up the scroll on a happening street right next to Brown University. I expected the participation to go through the roof, but just like our experience at Southern Mississippi University, getting college students to stop and write on the scroll proved to be an unexpected challenge. I'm still trying to figure out why this might be the case. Then again, it was only two universities. While I'm tempted to say something like "college students these days are all too cool to stop and contribute to community projects," that would be a lie. Every university is unique, every town different, every street corner with a different vibe. We collected a slow sprinkling of writings until the sky, too, began to sprinkle and we packed up the van and carried on towards Massachusetts.
MASSACHUSETTS & NEW HAMPSHIRE
The drive north from Providence allowed me some time to work on photo editing and journal entries as Lauren drove Vananigans. I happened to look up from the computer just as we were driving past Concord, Massachusetts to see a sign that read, “Walden Pond.”
“Whoa! Get off the interstate!” I stammered. “We’ve got to go check out Thoreau’s old stomping grounds!”
Lauren had already visited Walden Pond (she has family in the area), but kindly obliged my sentimental request. We drove through the old town of Concord where Ralph Waldo Emerson also spent time and parked across the street from Walden Pond.
Henry David Thoreau wrote “Walden” from the shores of the wooded pond. The book was of great import to me in high school, inspiring me to write my own series of “intellectual essays” – or at least the most profound ramblings that my sixteen-year-old self could come up with. My senior quote in the high school yearbook was also from Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
I recited the quote on camera and ran off into the pond for a swim. The water was surprisingly warm compared to what I had expected. Lauren humored me as we shot several takes of the quote/swim sequence, though I managed to mix up the words of the quote all three times. ‘A’ for affort.
We cruised through Lowell, Massachusetts (Jack Kerouac’s hometown) and drove another five minutes to Dracut where Lauren has family. We spent the night at her Uncle Ray’s house, hearing many stories about the historical town’s past and making plans for the next day’s wanderings.
A beautiful spring day greeted us the next morning. We drove back to Lowell, making our first stop at Jack Kerouac Park in the downtown area. The park is rather small, comprised of several marble pillars in the shape of a mandala. Each pillar had a different Kerouac quote inscribed on it, so we took some time to read the excerpts from “On the Road,” “Lonesome Traveler,” “The Town and the City” and others.
I first read “On the Road” my senior year of high school while on my first international trip (that wasn’t a family vacation) in Spain. The novel hit me like no other book ever had before – lighting a fire in me to not only write differently, but live differently. Suddenly I was seeing the world through a new lens – a vibrant world of infinite possibility and expression full of countless characters to comingle with. I ended up attending Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where I graduated from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. So, needless to say, Jack has had a significant influence on my life as a student, writer, traveler and dreamer. I even have him to thank for getting me started on writing haiku.
Ray had recommended a bar in Lowell called the Old Worthen. We went and grabbed a beer in the historic bar that Kerouac and others used to frequent. Fun fact: the bar has the oldest functional belt fan system in the United States. It blew us away!
After visiting one of the old cotton mills in town we drove to South Lowell and visited Kerouac’s grave. The grave itself is pretty ordinary, but it was nice to pay my respects to the writer who has had such a great influence on my life. I drank a beer, poured a bit out for Jack, took a pencil rubbing of his grave on the scroll and left him a haiku on one of my Manuscript Across America business cards. A few days later, I got a message on the Facebook page from a stranger, asking if we had been at Kerouac’s grave recently. Indeed, word is that words get around.
We drove to Lauren’s aunt and uncle's house in Hudson, New Hampshire and enjoyed a dinner and an impromptu scroll setup in the yard. Sleep came early for me, but I was well rested the next morning for our first of two days in Boston. We set up at Faneuil Hall, a city meeting place since 1743. There were certainly lots of folks out and about, but mostly tourists who were far more interested in watching a street performer than writing on our scroll. I did learn that if you want to get attention in Boston, all you have to do is wear a kilt and juggle machetes while playing a bagpipe on a unicycle.
That night, we went to a live show of Risk! the podcast. I had submitted a story to tell on stage that night, but unfortunately it wasn’t selected. We enjoyed the stories nonetheless, though I couldn’t help but think about how much I wanted to be up there sharing my own tale. There’s always next time. It was also a bummer to have written people at the podcast weeks in advance to have the scroll set up inside the event and ultimately have them turn us down. No writing allowed for story lovers? No comprendo.
We tried our hand at Boston scrolling again the next day, choosing a downtown location near the train station that was somewhat sheltered from the strong wind that had come within an inch of tearing the scroll in half the day before. Boston wasn’t really feeling it. The people that stopped to chat loved the project, but most folks had that head-down NYC attitude that wouldn’t entertain outside distractions, no matter what it was. We could have been giving away bags of cash and the majority of people would have still passed us by.
The scroll wasn’t the biggest hit, but we did get to catch up with a couple friends that we hadn’t seen in a while – my fellow Naropa buddy Robbie (whom I traded a copy of my Mountain House book for a copy of Henry Miller’s “Sexus”) and our dear friend Ashley who moved to Boston from Lake Tahoe. We linked up with our friend Angela at the train station (she had hitchhiked down from her home in Montreal), cooked up a delicious veggie dinner back at Ashley’s and drank a few beers as I wrote a couple dozen postcards to some of my Indiegogo contributors.
My favorite interaction from our scroll time in Boston was a Welsh man who wrote, “Inspire the world again as you did back in 1776.” He urged America to “be a beacon for the rest of the world like you’ve done so many times before – you ended slavery, you championed civil rights, you defended democracy; do it again.”
Lauren, Angela and I bid farewell to Ashley at her apartment in Boston and loaded up in vananegans once again, this time bound for Maine. We took the scenic route along the coast and enjoyed lobster (lobstah) rolls and clam chowder (chowdah) at a roadside restaurant. The owner of the restaurant seemed like a classic character, so I went and tracked him down in the “Captain’s Quarters” – or what he referred to as “the man cave” – behind the restaurant for an interview.
He was hanging out with a friend, drinking Coors Light. We chatted for a good fifteen minutes, talking about his life as a Merchant Marine and his long career as a lobster fisherman in Maine. He offered me a beer after the interview, which I graciously accepted. When I bid them adieu, he insisted that I take another beer – one of his favorites from the area – as a road soda. I was liking Maine already.
We drove down a side road towards the ocean. Ever since my last swim in the Pacific a month earlier in Santa Cruz, I had been eager to take a dip in the Atlantic. Emerging from a residential neighborhood at a sandy strip of coast, we ran down the beach and plunged into the ocean, officially marking the completion of Manuscript Across America’s voyage from coast to coast. At first, I was surprised at how warm the water was. Seconds later, I was hyperventilating with a brain freeze, so ran back up the beach to warm up for an exalted interview.
Our arrival in Portland, Maine was just before sunset. We talked to a few people about where to set up the scroll and ended up on the back patio of a bar/restaurant called The Thirsty Pig. Traffic was relatively light (it was a Tuesday), but we engaged with some highly intellectual locals who were happy to contribute to the project. I interviewed a group of three women near the end of the night. I stepped back for a moment and marveled at my interview set up: three tripods strategically placed – one with a light, one with a microphone and the other with the camera. “I’ll be damned,” I thought to myself. “It looks like I might actually be getting the hang of this whole documentary thing.” Granted, I’m still no more than an entry-level film maker, but it felt good to finally be dialing in on all the nuances of light, sound and imagery that go into making a quality movie.
One of the women turned out to be a high school teacher and she invited us to come set up the scroll for her students the next morning. We stayed with the parents of a mutual friend for the night, then woke up bright and early for our special appearance at Casco Bay High School.
The scroll was only out for half an hour between 7:30 and 8:00, but we got a steady stream of student contributions. I conducted a pair of in-depth interviews with seniors who were 18 and thus old enough to sign their own personal appearance release forms.
We stopped by the farmers market afterwards and chatted with some more locals, gaining a fresh perspective on fresh food. I ran into a girl named Joanna who had signed the scroll the night before. She gave us some farmers market currency to buy produce with and wished us luck on our journey. I found out later that she’s friends with my nephew’s nanny clear back in San Francisco! Small world.
Crossing back over the New Hampshire state line, we explored the town of Conway for a couple hours, chatting with a few locals and getting invited into a garage for a round of Rolling Rocks. I was sensing a common theme in New England: chat casually with strangers and offer them beer.
It was finally time to go camping. After more than a month of cities, traffic, skyscrapers, interstates and pavement, it was an immediate relief to turn off the highway and head up a dirt road alongside the Sawyer River. A minute into the woods, a moose greeted us with a cameo, welcoming us back to the natural world.
We hung out by the river, interviewed a couple hikers, and cooked up a tasty dinner on the cast-iron skillet. I set up several time-lapse sequences of the moon as it played peek-a-boo with the passing clouds. We set up the camera and the light for a three-person panel interview that Angela harkened to appearing on “The View.” Thoroughly exhausted, we retired to the van, already looking forward to the mellow morning ahead to drink coffee, cook up some bacon and go for an invigorating swim in the snow-fed river.
Angela had hitchhiked down from Montreal, Canada to meet us in Boston with the agreement that we would return her to her apartment in Quebec a few days later. We arrived at her place in late afternoon and ate salami and cheese sandwiches on fresh baguettes as I continued writing postcards to my crowd-funding contributors. As the sun was just about to set, I decided it wouldn’t be right to come all the way to Canada without setting up the scroll, so I unloaded the gear from the van and set up shop in a little park on the corner of her street.
It was slow going. Painfully slow. While I speak Spanish fluently and a good amount of Portuguese as well, my French maxed out at bonjour. I kept approaching folks in the park and asking them to write on the scroll, but nobody was having it. Finally, I guy about my age agreed to an interview in English. A couple minutes in to my inquiries, an old man with a white beard started screaming at me in French.
“Do you know what he’s saying?” my interviewee asked.
“That I’m an asshole for speaking English and shouldn’t be in Quebec if I don’t speak French?”
The old man went on a two-minute tirade about my lack of cultural sensitivity and stormed off down the street.
“He’s angry,” the guy said.
“I can see that.”
Fortunately, the crowd warmed up a bit as evening set in. I spoke with several Canadians about their take on the United States, gathering some quality interviews on the subject as well. We checked out downtown later that night, staying abreast of any further trouble and capping the night off with some delicious poutine.
Manuscript Across America does Canada. Check.
Bonnie and John are the parents of one of Lauren’s good friends that she knows from California. Like so many other people whom we’ve stayed with on our travels, their hospitality at their home in Burlington, Vermont was above and beyond. It has truly been amazing to experience such welcoming people in places where we would have otherwise been on our own.
We arrived at their home in Burlington in late afternoon, just in time to take a quick tour of the town. They took us down to Lake Champlain where we watched a beautiful sunset over the western shore. Bonnie then led us on a walking tour of an elementary school where she has spent countless hours as a volunteer, planting vegetable gardens and fruit trees with students around the entire perimeter of the school. Bringing fresh, healthy food to the schools in Burlington has been one of her biggest passions over the last couple decades, and it was remarkable to see how tirelessly and selflessly this woman has committed herself to such a noble cause.
We drove over to the local co-op as well, having John point out little urban garden plots on various street corners along the way where Bonnie has found a way to make fruits and vegetables flourish in places that would have otherwise been covered in cement. Back at the house, they served us an incredible dinner consisting of a fresh salad, homemade dressing, grilled asparagus, beans, cheese and tortillas. It was the best meal I’ve had since leaving California.
Lauren had a flight out of Burlington early the next morning. It was sad to see her go, but above all I remained grateful for all of the time and energy she has given to me and Manuscript Across America since last December, when I first started planning the project. We lived together in Truckee over the winter, and she was my main advisor, planner, promoter and supporter the entire time. My original mission statement was more like a novel full of commas and she helped me whittle it down to a single concise, punchy sentence. Without all of her help, I wouldn’t have been able to take on this often-overwhelming endeavor, and without her crucial input along the way, we would have never learned about such momentous events as the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rallies in Charleston, West Virginia until it was too late. She deserves a lot of credit for helping to make this whole thing happen.
But alas, the scroll rolls on. I headed down to the Burlington Farmers Market and set up the paper and table in the grass, right in the center of all the action. For three hours, I had a constant stream of conversations and contributions to the scroll. The vibe was about as wholesome as it gets – happy families eating healthy food in the shade of blossoming trees. Good stuff.
I packed up the gear and rushed to my van before my metered parking expired, heading into South Burlington for the second stop of my scroll double-header: the Magic Hat Brewery’s HeavyFest. I had to talk with a half-dozen people before I got clearance to set up the scroll at the event, but I was grateful that they eventually said yes. I’ve been lucky in many places in this regard. I show up unannounced with a project that’s a lot easier to appreciate when it’s set up than explained, so strangers have to take a leap of faith with me and often disregard “the rules” about permits, fees, insurance liabilities and the like. Once it’s set up though, I must say, people are always glad to have it be a part of their space.
I drank a couple beers and mingled with a rather youthful Burlington crowd as several bands performed on the outdoor stage. Food trucks provided delicious tacos and I made friends with several folks who dug the project. By the time I got back to Bonnie and John’s, I was spent. Eight hours of standing on my feet and answering countless questions about the project. Happy to do it, but it sure can take its toll in the fatigue department. I passed out at 8 p.m. and woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning (Bonnie claims the day is half-wasted by this time).
We drank coffee and I interviewed the superwoman (she gives my own mother a run for her money) about community art projects that she orchestrates. For several years, she’s been showing up at public events centered around food and providing people of all ages with art supplies to create collaborative pieces. Often, she’ll bring thousands of pieces of cloth and provide scissors for people to cut into various shapes and pin onto quilts. Bonnie then sews the cut-outs onto quilts whenever she has some spare time – a.k.a. between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. when she’s not volunteering her time planting fresh produce. She showed me her collection of collaborative art pieces and we talked about our common joy of providing simple materials to let others create beautiful art – me with pens and paper and Bonnie with cloth and scissors.
They gave me a completely unnecessary donation for my project and I thanked them for their hospitality and inspiration. Bonnie and John are truly a dynamic couple doing powerful and profound things in their community. Keep it up guys!
ADIRONDACK MOUNTAINS TO ALLEGHENY RIVER
I drove south from Burlington to meet up with Bennett in New London, New Hampshire. Bennett and I became friends over a decade ago as fellow students in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. We’ve traveled extensively in South America and the American West together, so it was exciting news when he agreed to join me for a couple weeks between the East Coast and Denver.
I picked him up at his Aunt Emily’s house in New London. She made sure we didn’t leave without copious amounts of meat, cheese and apple pie for the road ahead. A sweet woman whom I wish we could have had more time to hang out with, but the journey beckoned us onward. I fired up the van and checked the odometer. After driving more than 7,500 miles over the last month of Manuscript Across America’s travels, the time had finally come to start working my way back west towards California.
We drove through rural Vermont back roads and crossed over the Connecticut River into New York, stopping occasionally to snap photos of presidential campaign signs, fill up fresh gourds of yerba mate and, thanks to the caffeinated tea, relieve our bladders. According to the map, our best bet at finding somewhere to camp for the night was north of the interstate in the Adirondack National Forest.
It was past midnight when we finally made it into the national forest. A cop followed us for several miles, chomping at the bit to pull over the van with California plates that was creeping through his small town in the middle of the night, but after five minutes of waiting for us to make a mistake, eventually pulled an abrupt U-turn and let us go on our way in peace.
Nearly falling asleep at the wheel, we finally made it to the campground we had seen on the map. Fortunately, the campground host wasn’t able to accept the rather expensive fee after midnight and suggested we simply park on the side of the road for free instead. That was a new one, but we happily took his frugal advice and fell asleep like logs in a forest.
We made coffee early the next morning and drove on to Niagara Falls outside of Buffalo, New York on the Canadian border. People had told us that the U.S. side of the falls would likely be a disappointment, but we decided to check it out anyway. Neither of us had ever been, so we were willing to take our chances. Confirming what we had heard, it was a massive letdown. In fact, it was actually a rather embarrassing spectacle – especially considering that it’s America’s oldest state park. Tourists mobbed a crowded sidewalk and pressed their faces up to a chain-link fence to try and catch a view of the mist-obscured falls. Bulldozers rattled back and forth in the foreground, kicking up dust on what will someday be a slightly better vantage point. To be fair, the Canadian side is said to have far superior views, but Bennett hadn’t thought to bring his passport, and El Corriente (that’s me and Bennett) always sticks together, so we snapped a few mandatory photos and hustled back to the parking lot before we incurred a twenty-dollar fee for our twenty-minute visit.
Putting the soup sandwich behind us, we ventured on down the highway and into Pennsylvania. The journey up to this point had been largely dominated by big cities, so I was anxious to set up the scroll in a rural setting. While we didn’t have any trouble finding ourselves smack dab in the middle of nowhere, we did have a hard time finding any people to engage with the project in such small towns.
All of a sudden I saw a baseball field with a hundred or so people watching a game on the side of the road. Knowing that it was surely the largest collection of humans that we would find in rural Pennsylvania, I parked the van and began wondering how I was going to approach the rather awkward situation of setting up the scroll at a 2nd and 3rd grade girls baseball game. Bennett couldn’t believe I was actually going to do it.
“They’ll like what we’re doing,” I assured him. “We’ll just have to be sure to explain the project. And maybe not waltz right up with cameras rolling.”
“It’s your show, ace,” he said. “It’s your show.”
We set up the scroll behind a mix of kids and parents in lawn chairs along the first base line. Immediately, several small children ran up to the table, standing on tippy-toes to draw dinosaurs on the scroll of paper. Several adults began casting me rather dubious stares, so I went up to them one at a time and explained what Manuscript Across America was and why we had ended up in – where were we, anyway? I had to ask.
“Warren, Pennsylvania,” they said. “Sounds like a cool project.”
Eventually we had talked to enough people not to feel completely awkward for being there, though it was still quite a surreal experience. Every time an inning would end, kids would run in from the outfield and begin writing (usually drawing) on the scroll. The coaches and parents would then run over to the table and say things like, “Hey! Jennifer, Annie, Sarah – we’re playing a baseball game here. Come back to the field and wait for your turn to bat.”
“But we want to draw!” they’d say.
“You can draw after the game,” the adults explained. “Now is baseball time.”
“But I’m not even up until after Mary,” said one of the girls.
“Baseball. Now,” said the coach.
“Fine,” said the girl with an exasperated sigh, sneaking in one last streak of pink into the heart with flowers around it. “Can I finish this later?” she asked me.
“Sure thing,” I said. “We’ll be here.”
We waited for the game to end and allowed the masses of excited kids to draw to the hearts’ content. Several adults came and wrote on the scroll as well, though I could only get one woman and her daughter to agree to an interview. After every car had filed out of the parking lot but ours, we packed up our gear and drove another half-hour down the road, finding a beautiful campsite on the Allegheny River to cook up dinner, enjoy a few cold beers and sleep the night away.
Toledo, Ohio was one of those stops that just kind of happened. We had seen it on the map and decided it would be a good location for an afternoon scroll setup on our way to Detroit. Right off the bat, Bennett was calling it “Scrolledo.” Pun brother for sure.
We were cruising through the downtown area when we saw a sign for event parking. “What’s the event?” I asked out the window. “Mud Hens,” was the response. Thanks to my research en route, I had ascertained that the Mud Hens are Toledo’s minor league baseball team – essentially all of the players who are just a good hitting streak or pitching performance away from getting called up to play for the Detroit Tigers. “Perfect,” we said in unison. “Go Mud Hens!”
We paid $5 to park in the lot and hustled the scroll a couple blocks to Third Fifth Field where the game would be starting in half an hour. In no time flat we had the scroll set up for the crowd of people that were waiting in line to buy tickets for the game.
“What is this?” came the usual barrage of questions.
“We’re taking this scroll of paper across the country, allowing people to share their thoughts about whatever they’re passionate about.” My spiel was beginning to sound like a door-to-door salesman’s, but I went on: “You could write about what you think America needs most right now, what’s going on in your community, thoughts about the environment – anything goes.”
“So I can write anything I want?”
“Anything at all.”
“Free freedom of speech.”
We got a pretty broad range of contributions in a short period of time, though we did notice an abundance of anti-Trump sentiments on the scroll. I interviewed a mother and her young daughter. The daughter had written, “No Trump.”
“Why don’t you like Trump?” I asked the girl who couldn’t have been more than eight.
“Because he’s a racist.”
We talked to a man who didn’t want an interview, but he did say that what kids these days needed was more time outside and less time in front of screens.
“I’m with you there,” I told him.
“I know you are, “ he said. “We’ve both lived long enough to know this.”
Moments later – with poetic timing I might add – two women approached the scroll and began taking pictures of it with their cell phones. Then one of the women started writing the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as …. “ she wrote. “Shit, I can’t remember it. How does it go?”
We all jumbled up the untos and yourselves until she pulled out her cell phone and asked Siri: “What’s the Golden Rule?” Once Siri gave her the answer, she finished writing it. Her friend was reading the questions and followed suit with a question of her own. “Siri, what does America need most right now?” she asked her cell phone. “That’s an interesting question, Sylvia,” Siri said. Classic.
The crowd eventually filed into the game, so we put the scroll and camera gear back in the van and did the same. It was already the fifth inning by the time we made it in, but we enjoyed a good four innings of Mud Hens baseball nonetheless. They won 5-0. To celebrate, we went to a bar across the street, got dinner, drank a few brews, and walked back to our now-empty downtown parking lot.
“Well, looks like it’s urban camping for us tonight, old buddy,” I said.
“Sure does,” said Bennett. “Urban camping in Scrolledo.”
Detroit was only an hour’s drive from our Toledo, Ohio parking lot. A friend had recommended Hart Plaza to set up the scroll, but we discovered upon arrival that the entire plaza was fenced off for the upcoming Movement Festival – apparently one of the biggest electronic music festivals in the United States.
We parked on the 6th level of a massive parking garage near a triad of General Motors skyscrapers and meandered through the city streets looking for a place to unfurl the scroll. There was something odd about Detroit; something was missing. It took a moment to put a finger on it, but we eventually realized that the city was largely devoid of vitality. Not only was there a complete lack of trees, parks, birds, etc., we soon realized that whatever people lived and/or worked in Detroit were nowhere to be found – at least in the part of town where we found ourselves. We walked several city blocks, lucky to encounter a single human being every couple minutes. Somewhat exasperated, we bought sandwiches and sat down on the curb to eat an eerie urban picnic.
“Uhhhh … carry on to Flint?” I posited.
“It’s your show, ace,” said Bennett.
An hour later, we found ourselves driving through a residential neighborhood in Flint, Michigan. My decision to include Flint on the Manuscript Across America itinerary was largely based on Flint’s water crisis, so when we spotted a water distribution center at a local church, we pulled over to check it out.
Immediately, a man working at the water distribution center was standing beside our van, asking if he could help us. I explained the project and asked if he would be willing to do an interview. He declined. I then asked if we might be able to set up the scroll in the church parking lot. He called one of his supervisors and informed me that would not be possible. I then asked if any of the dozen or so volunteers at the distribution center would be able to comment on the water crisis.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t have the authority to give you permission to do that.”
“Alright,” I said. “Thank you for your time. Do you have any recommendations on places in Flint where we might be able to set up the scroll?”
“Try the mall,” he said. “It’s called the Genesee Valley Center. You’ll find plenty of people to talk to there.”
We drove to the mall and found another rather desolate scene. Still determined, we walked inside and tried to get a pulse on things. The demographics at the mall were markedly different than the residential neighborhood where the water distribution center was – mostly white and noticeably wealthier. I went to the bathroom to take a pee and noticed a sign above the drinking fountains: “Genesee Valley Center is located in Flint Township, which receives municipal water service from the Detroit Water System. Genesee Valley Center has remained connected to the Detroit Water System and at no time have we received any water from the City of Flint. Thank you for shopping Genesee Valley Center.”
We learned that the city of Flint and the Flint Township are two quite separate worlds. Not only is there a distinct difference in the people who live in each (not necessarily race, but certainly class), but the Flint Township – by complete and utter chance of course – was not directly affected by the government’s decision to switch the downtown water source to the Flint River and keep its harmful lead levels a secret from the public for more than two years. Our waitress at a nearby restaurant said that she only went downtown a couple times per year – specifically when she had to pay tickets. We asked her if she might at least point us in the right direction for a place to set up the scroll downtown, but she had to refer us to her manager, who “had a little more knowledge of what goes on down there.”
The manager suggested the intersection of Saginaw and Kearsley. “There should be some people there for you guys. But don’t wander too far from that area,” he warned. “It’s a different world.”
“Be safe,” the waitress chimed in. “And good luck.”
We drove to the suggested intersection and set up on a quiet sidewalk. Once again, there was a distinct lack of people for us to engage with, but nothing about the area felt unsafe. Our first contributor was a combat veteran named Robert who had served in Iraq. He joined the military immediately after 9/11, citing his anger over the attack on the United States as his reason for joining. “I decided to do something about it,” he said. “So I signed up.”
While he enjoyed his experience in the military, he was disappointed with how the government had taken care of him since.
“You’d think by doing a tour in Iraq you’d at least be able to go to school, but I haven’t been able to do any of that,” he said. “I went to the VA one time and they told me not to come back for a year. I go to these places all the time that are supposed to be committed to helping veterans. I think one guy helped me make a job resume, and that was it. There was no job training, no job placement. They tell us that we’re first in line to get a job, but I haven’t seen it.”
I asked him what he thought America needs most right now and he dove right in: “Stop sending our jobs overseas. Honestly. I think we need to tighten our borders up. As crazy as that sounds, it’s true. We’ve got all these people who have been here for generations and generations as Americans and they can’t find work – any kind of work. And you’ve got other people that are coming from God knows where and they’re taking all our jobs. Still. It’s crazy.”
To wrap up the interview, I asked him what he thought about the presidential candidates.
“Is Bernie Sanders still in it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “But he’s hanging on by a thread.”
“Well I think they need to make that thread a chain and get him in there. Hillary is crazy. She gets a lot of props with the Monica Lewinsky thing for staying committed, but if it all came down to it, I’d put Bernie Sanders in office right now. I guess what I’m saying is, anyone but Trump. I don’t like liars. I don’t like liars at all. You’re one of the richest men in the world and you’re going to tell me you don’t know who the KKK is. That’s ridiculous. You can’t be lying like that before America. We know.”
We thanked Robert for his thoughtful interview and he thanked us for our project.
“Thank you guys for doing this,” he said. “I think it’s a really good thing, so hopefully this helps to spread the word.”
Twenty slow minutes later, I struck up a conversation with a college-age student who thought the project was incredibly noble and important. We chatted for fifteen minutes, though he preferred not to be filmed.
“How are you guys funding this?” he asked.
“It’s just us,” I said. “I did an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign and managed to raise about $5,000, but other than that it’s a labor of love.”
He asked if he could still donate but I explained that the campaign had ended.
“We do have the ‘loot boot’ here,” I said. “You’re welcome to throw some cash in there if you’re inspired to.”
“Shoot,” he said. “I don’t carry cash on me.”
“No worries,” I said. “Have a great day my friend.”
A woman named Nancy came down from her office a while later and was equally moved by what we were doing.
“Where are you guys staying in Flint?” she asked.
“I’ve got family in Lansing,” I said. “So I think we were just going to drive there when we’re all wrapped up in Flint.”
“Well you’re more than welcome to stay at my house if you’d like,” she said without hesitation. “Just let me know if you’re coming so I can have beds made with clean sheets for you.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “That’s extremely kind of you.”
Ten minutes later, the college student came back and put $20 in the loot boot. He had gone to an ATM and pulled out money just for the project. Amazing. We had only engaged with three people in Flint, but all three had blown our minds with their insights, understanding and generosity.
“This is a great town,” I told Bennett.
“You’re telling me,” he said. “Wow.”
“Let’s come back tomorrow. We’ve got to dig deeper here. Nancy told me there’s a farmers’ market that should have plenty of people to engage with.”
“In like Flint,” he said.
The next day, we drove the 45 minutes from Lansing to Flint after leading an engaging discussion with sixty 7th and 8th graders at DeWitt Junior High School (see other post) where my cousin Carol has taught for the last 36 years. We wheeled right up to the Flint Farmers’ Market and set up the table and scroll amidst the various vendors.
There have been times when asking permission to set up our project first seems to be the best approach and others where it seems more advantageous to get it up and running so that people can see how simple – and hopefully beneficial – the nature of the project is. We opted for the latter of these two tactics, but were approached shortly thereafter by the manager of the farmers market.
“You guys can’t be here,” she said. “Everyone else here has made a reservation well in advance and is paying for there spot. Sorry, but you’ll have to go.”
Instead of combating her request – or bending to it for that matter – I simply took some time to explain what we were doing. She began to read what some of the people had already written on the scroll. I could sense a shift occurring.
“It’s just paper and pens,” I assured her. “We’re trying to give people a voice so that they can understand each other better and have an outlet to talk about the issues that they’re passionate about.”
“I see,” she said. “Wow, this is really neat. You’ve been all over the country? How cool. I like that. Hmm… well usually we charge $20 for groups like you to set up their tables, but if it’s just paper and pens, I can live with that. It seems like you guys are definitely doing a good thing here. Do you mind if I sign it?”
“By all means, go right ahead,” I encouraged her. “And thanks for having us. It means a lot.”
“You bet,” she said, writing: “Thanks for stopping by the Flint Farmers’ Market!”
And with that, we had retroactively gained access to the event with no prior planning or payment. Once people see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, they are almost invariably excited to have us there, and Flint was no exception.
My first interview was with a woman named Lynn who had been working an information booth with a group of several other volunteers, all of whom were wearing blue shirts that said, “Flint Lives Matter.” She explained that the organization she was volunteering her time for is called “My Neighbor, My Friend” – a group that delivers fresh water and other supplies to vulnerable members of the Flint community.
“Right now the community is very frustrated. Things have been moving very slow. For two years, the people of Flint knew that there was something wrong with our water. The community spoke out against it and yet the government told us the water was safe to use, only to find out that it was not okay. And so there’s a big distrust in what government, elected officials and the EPA have been telling us. People are resilient and resourceful – they’re making due as best they, and yet they’re very challenged in accepting the information and resources that are available. We even had situations where parts of the large undocumented population here in Flint, people who are here illegally, weren’t even aware of the water crisis until March of this year – six months after the general population found out. When these people went out to secure water, they were actually being picked up by immigration or harassed by immigration, and so they are very distrusting of anyone who is trying to reach out and help them. So there is a very small group that is able to go into those communities to provide the resources that they need as well.”
Lynn and countless others were happy to share their thoughts about what is going on in their community and what they think America needs at large. More accountability. More volunteers. More government officials who actually care about the general population instead of their own personal agendas.
Many Flint residents have been working hard to help those in need by volunteering their own time and resources to help when the government couldn’t or wouldn’t be of real aid. We also heard several people explain that they’re tired of Flint being portrayed so dismally in the media. We began to understand why the water distribution center was weary of our presence there the day before. We also gained our own deepened respect and appreciation for the people of Flint. By the day’s end, I had to add my own two cents to the scroll.
“From an outside perspective, I can see that Flint is full of beautiful, talented, intelligent and creative people. It seems that Flint is a seed, poised to bloom into a vibrant flower, if only the government would nourish it with proper water.”
My cousin Carol has been a teacher at DeWitt Junior High School outside of Lansing, Michigan for over thirty years. She invited us to come set up the scroll and speak to her students, so we jumped at the opportunity.
We set up the scroll and table in the library and allowed about thirty students from Carol’s 8th grade Language Arts class and another thirty from her friend and fellow teacher’s 7th grade Language Arts class to take their seats. Carol introduced me to her students and I gave them an explanation of the project’s origins and intended purpose. I then asked them what they thought America needs most right now and had each table discuss the question in small groups before having a spokesperson share their conclusions.
Several tables suggested that we needed better leaders – leaders that were less greedy and would actually listen to what Americans wanted – and that they weren’t really satisfied with any of the current presidential candidates. I asked the group of sixty students to raise their hands for who they would vote for if they had to choose one of the three remaining candidates. About eight people raised their hands for Trump and about 50 raised their hands for Bernie. When I asked about Hillary, not a single hand went up in the air. Not one.
One table brought up the transgender bathroom issue – a topic I did not see coming. The male spokesperson suggested that people should use the bathroom of the gender that they’re born with, regardless of whether or not they identify with the opposite gender. This really got the discussion going. Several females thought that it would make more sense for people to be able to use the bathroom of their choice.
Suddenly we were talking about race and immigration. I asked how many people thought that racism was still an issue in America and every single hand went up. There was a mix of opinions on the immigration topic, but the discussion moved peacefully back and forth between differing ideas on what should be done. Several people agreed that there should be tighter immigration control with more thorough background checks. Others said that diversity is what makes America beautiful. One student criticized people for thinking that all Muslims are terrorists by explaining that Muslims are here in America to avoid terrorism. Another student responded by posting the hypothetical question: “If somebody gave you a box of cookies and you knew that two of the cookies were poisoned, would you still want the box of cookies?” Another student defended Mexicans being in the country, criticizing Trump and his purported wall. Almost all of the students agreed that not building the wall was “simple common sense.”
A defender of the Second Amendment spoke up, saying that he would feel safer in a large group if he or someone he knew had a gun. I asked him if he would feel safer if he was at a football game and all 50,000 fans had guns. This gave him pause for a minute, but he still believed all people should have that right. Once again, a host of hands shot up in the air and the other side of the issue was argued.
The discussion was incredible. In spite of a wide range of opinions, the 7th and 8th graders handled themselves with more maturity than most adults would be able to demonstrate while discussing the same topics. Not only this, the students spoke eloquently and intelligently about a wide range of important topics. Overall, it seemed that most students wanted more equality in America and better representation by government. Even as young people, almost all of them got the sense that the struggles of the average American citizen are not handled very effectively in Washington D.C.
I thanked the students for their thoughts and gave them all an opportunity to write on the scroll. They gave me an enthusiastic round of applause, grateful to have their own voices heard as part of the project. It was an awesome experience – one that gave Bennett and I both a renewed sense of hope for the future of the United States and the world at large.
A live band was playing Allman Brothers songs down the street from our new home in Mount Prospect, Illinois – a suburb just outside of Chicago. My dear friend Ellie had put me in contact with her parents, who had in turn invited us to stay at their home while they were away for Memorial Day Weekend. Neither of us had ever met them before, but they took their daughter’s word on good faith and left us a key – yet another example of the generous hospitality we’ve received throughout this trip.
Following the music with scroll in tow, we arrived at a car show. Dozens of classic and obscure cars lined the parking lot, with hundreds of people meandering to and fro on the warm Illinois evening. We set up shop and chatted with a lively bunch of folks, receiving a nice flow of written contributions as I conducted interviews.
It’s always fascinating to see the chain reaction of words that take shape on the scroll, like the addition of “Americans need to regain the ability to share differing viewpoints” alongside the previous comment: “Christians and Muslims do NOT pray to the same God.”
Someone else wrote the Trump tagline: “Make America Great Again,” to which a subsequent contributor wrote: “Make America Love Again.” We had supporters of all three presidential candidates leave their mark on the scroll, as well as several people who agreed that none of the candidates – nor the system that got them into the race – is representative of a functional democracy.
I was interviewing two Chicago ladies as the cars began to file out of the show. They were talking about reducing greenhouse gasses, but the rumble of engines was overwhelming.
“What was that!?” I yelled. “Were you guys saying something about the ozone over the roar of these engines?”
We packed up the mobile scroll and found a bar to get dinner. As fate would have it, we sat down next to a filmmaker who gave me some crucial advice on creating documentaries. In essence, he shattered all of my naïve illusions that I would be able to singlehandedly make a quality documentary in two months’ time with all the footage that I have. I picked his brain about consent forms, b-roll footage, camera settings and the endless list of nuanced legalities involved with making documentaries. He suggested I hire editors and producers to make sense of it all.
“Sounds great,” I said. “How much will that cost?”
“You might be able to get away with $5,000 if you find someone like myself who really loves the project,” he said. “But realistically, you’re probably looking at something closer to ten.”
As the journey evolves, I have to laugh at myself when I consider the scale of the project that I’ve taken on. Instead of making a film about a single person’s afternoon and what they think of, say, organic farming, I’ve decided to zig-zag across the entire country twice and get everybody’s opinion about everything. Mind-boggling.
Nevertheless, the scroll must roll on. We drove into downtown Chicago early the next morning and had the Manuscript Across America table up and running by 10 a.m., directly across from Wrigley Field where the Cubs were set to play the Phillies in a few hours. Bennett and I both thought that the location would be a nonstop flow of contributors, but we had a surprisingly slow start getting people to engage with the project.
“Free freedom of speech, folks!” I would yell. “First Amendment here – use it or lose it!”
Slowly but surely, the stadium vendor style tactic worked. The paper filled up with a wide spectrum of ideas, from honoring the veterans who have served our country and loving Jesus Christ our savior to ending the violence that plagues Chicago and doing something about the heroine epidemic that is destroying lives in so many American cities.
A young boy wrote that America “needs to be less fat” and his father proudly endorsed his opinion. A teenager wrote, “Legalize it!” and walked off with a glassy-eyed wink. I spoke to a young woman who thought “America needs to stop eating meat and reduce the carbon consumption of the animal agricultural industry.” Another female in her twenties told me about living as a lesbian in America and how she can only go to certain bars in certain parts of town if she wants to hang out with her girlfriend in peace. We conducted an interview on the subject and she looked up at me at the end with a big smile: “I feel like I just did something good!”
Ambitious and overwhelming as the project may be, it’s this wide range of personal passions that keeps me going. The highlight of our day came from a twenty-minute interview with a man named Michael. He was selling peanuts outside of the stadium as a way of supplementing his income from his 9-5 weekday job with Sysco Foods. He talked extensively about the flaws of the system – expounding specifically on incarceration, education, racism and politics.
He told a story of a white man who recently came up to him outside of a Cubs game and told him, “Go get a real job.” The man’s nine-year-old daughter then spoke out against her own father in defense of Michael: “Daddy! Don’t say that!” He elaborated by talking about the millions of people who are voting for Trump as a microcosm of the nation’s sentiments at large. “Make America Great Again – what does that mean?” he said. “You have to look deeper. It means make America white again.”
Michael discussed his frustrations with Chicago’s out-of-control gun violence and the lack of pragmatic efforts by government to do anything about it. He talked about the cycles that end up putting fathers in jail, leaving single mothers to raise their kids alone – thus perpetuating that cycle. He also ranted about how unacceptable it is for people to stand by and watch as these injustices occur, criticizing leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – whom he once admired tremendously – for only making noise about major issues.
“Like Dr. King said, ‘Any man that watches an injustice happen is just as guilty as the man creating the injustice himself.’ So if you know this is going on in Ferguson, on the West Side of Chicago, you’re almost mandated to do something. Same way with Barack Obama. I was a number-one fan of Obama for a long time. I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting on him to do something. He’s from Chicago. The murders that are going on here in Chicago – I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m scared. When you’re walking around in society as a taxpayer and you’re that scared of your surroundings, it’s bad. And the president is not tackling it, the governor is not tackling it, the state reps, the mayor – nobody is tackling the system. You’re going to lock this guy up for selling crack on the corner when you know he’s not the one providing this stuff.”
I look forward to including Michael’s thoughts in the documentary – just as soon as I can sort through the hundreds of other interviews I’ve gathered on this comprehensive cataloging of Americans’ ideas and ideals.
IOWA CITY, IOWA
I hate to be corny – but so is Iowa. Dang! The endless miles of agriculture truly is staggering. After driving several hours and stopping to get some shots of cornfields, barns, silos, and wind turbines, we arrived in Iowa City. It was a pleasant evening with thunderheads all around us as we erected the scroll at a pedestrian mall. You never know exactly what you’re going to get in any given location, and I’ve also found that trying to anticipate the results is better left for the birds.
A group of enthusiastic contributors from the Congo loved the project. They all wanted interviews, and several of them spoke to me in French about the hardships their African nation is currently facing. They spoke to me with the hope that sharing their words might somehow help the tumultuous situation back home.
I interviewed a group of six teenagers, collecting their thoughts on various subjects. I asked what they thought of cell phones and technology, and one of them simply said, “I think it’s great.” I followed up with this question: “How many of you guys would rather give up a kidney than your cell phone?” Three of them said they would happily give up a kidney. “I mean, you’ve got two of them,” rationalized a fifteen-year-old.
We looked up a state park and drove twenty minutes out of town to Lake Macbride. It felt good to be immersed in nature once again. I stayed up late taking time-lapse photography of the stars, lightning and fireflies. A symphony of bullfrogs, birds, crickets and catfish sent me peacefully to sleep.
NORTH PLATTE, NEBRASKA
The rural settings have proved tricky for Manuscript Across America throughout this trip. As we try to get a broad perspective of our nation’s ideas, it’s only natural that we would include the vast numbers who live in small towns, but finding significant amounts of people in rural areas – let alone people who are receptive to the project and enthusiastic about sharing their thoughts – has been a huge challenge.
We arrived in York, Nebraska and parked in the Walmart parking lot to try and get a pulse on things. Several people turned down interviews, but we did get one man to give us fifteen minutes of his time on camera – though he said afterwards we could only use the footage if we blurred out his face and didn’t use his name. Fair enough, but an odd phenomenon. His thoughts were perfectly valid and sincere, but he didn’t want any direct association with them.
More of the same in Lexington, Nebraska: people who clearly had things to say, but didn’t have the desire to share them with the project. The scroll has indeed acted as a sort of filter on this trip. It’s hard to make any clear-cut conclusions, but I have noticed that the most enthusiastic contributors are often on the liberal side of the political equation. Furthermore, groups that may be marginalized or oppressed – whether that be based on race, class, religion, gender identification or anything else – are typically more anxious to voice their opinions than those who are more or less content with the status quo.
We spent the night on a dirt road in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska and drove an hour to North Platte, Nebraska for one more try with the scroll. We got exactly one written contribution and one interview – though the interviewee once again requested that we only use the audio.
The results of this project may seem skewed in certain directions, and while this is partially due to the demographics of the locations where we’ve set up the scroll, a lot of it has to do with the mysterious nuances relating to the type of people who are willing to participate in the project and those who would rather not.
After 11,000 miles of almost entirely unfamiliar terrain, it was nice to arrive in the familiar city of Denver and head to my grandparents’ house for dinner with relatives. In response to my family’s unbridled curiosity, we set up the scroll in the entryway and gave everyone a chance to write – including my mom’s parents who are going strong well into their nineties.
We spent the night with friends and headed downtown to the 16th Street Mall the following afternoon. Before we even had the table up, a security guard from an adjacent building advised us we would have to move off their property – about one foot out into the sidewalk. Ten minutes later, he came back and said to move it another two feet, so we went ahead and crossed over to the other side of the pedestrian mall. Pretty soon we had a good stream of people writing on the scroll. A guy in his early twenties wrote “Trump 2016” and explained his rationale for wanting him as president: “Because he’s not politically correct.” Shortly thereafter, another twenty-something-year-old approached the scroll and asked if he could write over the “Trump 2016” comment. “I suppose,” I said, to which he promptly wrote “Bernie ” on top. A young female wrote “Black Lives Matter” and I was mid-interview with her when mall security said we couldn’t be there at all. We ended up calling a supervisor and she told us over the phone that they couldn’t technically shut us down, so we kept on scrolling.
A woman wrote, “America, great country. Flaws, yes, but none so great that they can’t be overcome. Electing Trump is not something that can be overcome. Stop him by voting for a sensible candidate. Hillary wants all!” Sadly, she walked off before I could ask her for an interview.
In the political context, most people that I’ve talked to have been dissatisfied with all of the candidates – or at least the system within which they’re working. For those who do have a favorite, Bernie Sanders has received the most vocal endorsement, Trump fanatics have been spotty while often shying away from interviews, and Hillary supporters, by and large, have been incredibly few and far between. I found myself continually thinking about this paradox: where were the millions of people who have voted to make Trump and Hillary their parties’ presumptive nominees?
An hour later, three mall security guards came up, no patience left to offer us.
“We don’t even let the Girl Scouts on the mall,” one of them said to us with a snarl. “And you guys are worse than the Girl Scouts!”
Bennett and I let out deep sighs and began taking down the table and scroll.
“What’s going on?” asked a few folks who had recently contributed.
“They’re shutting us down,” I said.
“That’s bullshit!” they said.
“Tell them,” said Bennett, pointing at mall security.
A minute later, a curious group came by and asked what our project was.
“It was freedom of speech,” I explained. “But not anymore.”
A bit deflated, we drove the van to Blake Street in the hopes of finding people on their way to happy hour. The scene was bleak. So was our mood. Bleak Street. Two beers at a horseracing bar helped considerably. We regained our composure and rolled the gear down to Union Station where we rendezvoused with an old friend of mine named Andy.
Andy is a redheaded social fireball from Ohio. We got the scroll set up and he paraded around the area with his shirt off, petitioning people to “Step Write Up!” and contribute to the project. While glad to have his energetic assistance, I suggested he might put his shirt back on in order to avoid another confrontation with a handful of police officers and security guards who were already eyeing the happenings of Manuscript Across America from afar. He promptly abided and continued luring people in with his unabashed enthusiasm.
A girl with her grandma wrote, “Always be nice to your grandmother,” prompting a sweet hug between the two of them. An older man wrote, “We are one country. Made of many. Love everyone.” Somebody else offered these wise words to live by: “Never play with an elephant’s penis.”
I conducted several interviews, including a woman who read several haikus to me, and a bike taxi driver who was adamant about honoring the United States Constitution.
“Are you going to be here awhile?” he asked.
“Probably another couple hours,” I said. “Why?”
“I’ve got a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution at my house. I could ride my bike there and bring it back to you if you’re interested.”
“Sure,” I said. “That would be awesome.”
He sped off on his bicycle and came back half an hour later, triumphantly gifting me the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. I thanked him for going out of his way to give me this integral document that is – or at least was – at the center of our country’s democracy.
“Man,” I realized. “I really could have used this thing a few hours ago on the 16th Street Mall. Instead of pleading with mall security to let us keep scrolling, I could have simply pulled out the Constitution, opened up to the Bill of Rights and read them the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging thefreedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Huh. Well, next time I’ll be ready.”
“Glad I could be of assistance to your mission,” he said.
“Me too. Thanks again, brother. Here’s to our freedoms.”
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO
Colorado Springs is known for its conservative, religious and military-centric people, so we figured it would be a good opportunity for us to collect some different takes on issues than previous stops like Burlington, Vermont and Austin, Texas.
We happened upon an event called “FunFest” in a downtown park and set up the scroll on the sidewalk, still a bit cautious of overstepping our grounds from the 16th Street Mall eviction the day before. A female event coordinator approached us and stated her enthusiasm for what we were doing – furthermore inviting us to move inside the park if we so desired. We thanked her for the offer but decided to stay on the sidewalk where it was a bit quieter and we could still take advantage of large amounts of foot traffic.
True to our preconceptions of what Colorado Springs might bring to the table, we received several written contributions about trusting in Jesus, voting for Trump and giving thanks to our military. But, just like any city, there are always a wide range of contributions. We had several people comment about being more present, using cell phones less and spending time with family.
A couple hours in to our Colorado Springs scroll session, a man approached the scroll and enthusiastically wrote the words from “John 3:16” in blue ink. I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview for the documentary I was making, and he didn’t hesitate a moment before agreeing to share his thoughts. In fact, he was already well into a religious rant by the time I got the camera and microphone set up for the actual interview.
After quoting the Bible several times and quizzing me in a rather condescending manner about whether I knew what “repent” meant, I asked him what he thought America needs most right now.
“I think Trump 45 would be nice,” he said, referring to Trump becoming our 45th President.
“Why?” I asked.
“I think he’s the one to take care of the Iranians. I think he’s the one to take care of the Russians. He’s the candidate.”
Soon he was back on religion: “I’m beyond an evangelical. I’m a fundamentalist. I want to change and become more Christ-like. I need to work on gluttony.”
“What else does America need?” I asked him.
“God,” he said. He thought for a while longer. “Honestly, the thing I’m most scared of is the Iranians getting the bomb.”
“What about North Korea?” Bennett asked from the side.
“Yeah, but they don’t hate Israel. Atheists do not tend to commit suicide. The Kim guy – of course they’re all Kim – he’s got more power than the President of the United States. Why would he commit suicide? He’s got one of the best gigs in the world. Whereas, and I don’t understand the Muslim faith, but they are taught that ifthey die on behalf of Allah they get the 72 virgins – and so suicide is better than the wretched life they have now.”
I asked him to elaborate on his wanting Trump for President.
“Well, he’s no Ronald Reagan. I’m a Ronald Reagan guy. This is actually Ronald Reagan country. You know who Ronald Reagan is?”
“Yes,” I said. “How do you feel about immigration?”
“Legal immigration is great. We are the shining city on the hill. But an illegal immigrant, by definition, is breaking the law. I think there’s a way to have Mexico pay for the wall. We tell them that they are no longer under our military protection unless they build the wall. The math is there. So who’s your candidate?”
“I’d go for Bernie Sanders,” I said.
“Oh, so you want America to be like Venezuela? In 20 years, America will be like Venezuela.”
“Actually, I want….”
“Free stuff,” he cut me off. “You want free stuff. Bernie Sanders is using my credit card to buy your vote. Cuz he’s gonna give all kinds of free stuff. But he’s a lot better than Hillary. Hillary is so crooked, when she dies I’m going to have to screw her into the ground.”
“What do you think about this project?” I asked him.
“Do you really want to know?”
“No, you don’t really want to know what I think.”
“Yes, I do. Please tell me.”
“I think it’s kind of a way for you to raise money to have a heck of a fun summer. You say it’s going to a good cause? Which is like your kids or something?”
“No, I don’t have kids. The project is a labor of love – my attempt to listen to what Americans have to say and create a documentary of their voices with the belief that something good will come of it.”
“So then I’m right. I mean, what good is it doing? Why aren’t you working? What skills do you have? It seems kind of sketchy. So you’re, like, making the world a better place two people at a time?”
“Why did you stop to write on the scroll then?”
“So I could, so I could, so other people would see what I … see this probably isn’t a very Christian venue, is it? This is more like metaphysical kumbaya stuff. So ask me about abortion.”
“What do you think about abortion?”
“I think it’s demonic. I think God is angry every day. How many babies do you think have been killed since 1973 Roe v. Wade? I’m getting worked up here. So in 40 years, that’s 60 million babies. That is ten times more than people killed in the Jewish Holocaust. So it’s the American Holocaust.”
Suddenly he was on to gay marriage: “It turns out that people think God is just mad at homosexuals, I mean they are described as an abomination in the Old and New Testaments, but fornication is like one small step less than that. Do you know what fornication is? Should I explain it?”
“You can do a finger diagram for me,” I said.
“Any sex outside of marriage, in God’s eyes, is fornication. My wife and I waited until marriage and we wanted God’s blessing. Living with your girlfriend – I mean God is very angry about that, too. It’s not like he’s only mad at gay marriage. I’m a wing-nut Christian. I don’t want anyone not to be allowed to go to Heaven. My wife and I teach 5th grade Sunday School.”
Dear God, I thought – another generation of wing-nut Christians on the way. After twenty-five minutes of patiently humoring his views, I decided it was time to wrap up the interview and have him sign the release form that every single other interviewee has happily signed. But this guy was different. He wanted to rant and rave about his personal beliefs to me for nearly half an hour and not be held accountable for his words. He claimed that Manuscript Across America was a senseless waste of time and yet feared the repercussions of his involvement with the project. Eventually, he did sign the form, though he was concerned that I might manipulate the film footage with fancy editing tricks to “make him look like an idiot.”
Fortunately, no editing will be necessary to achieve that.
I have carried out this project without bias to the best of my ability. Regardless of people’s views, I have been able to understand and appreciate where people are coming from, even if their stance is radically different than my own. As a bottom line, I have always maintained respect for the people I’ve conversed with. In turn, participants have been able to respect me and the work that I am doing with the understanding that the project is about taking the pulse of America with no particular personal agenda.
The man in Colorado Springs tested my patience like none of the other thousands of individuals I’ve spoken with thus far. He was also the first to overtly criticize the project and my own beliefs on a personal level. I share his words not to condemn his viewpoints or explicitly say that he is wrong, but to raise awareness and promote conversation around topics that many of us are passionate about.
We parked the van on the side of a mountain road just outside of Boulder, Colorado and retired for the night. The following morning, we made coffee and admired the still snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains before pointing the van northwest towards Casper, Wyoming.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived in Casper, nicknamed “The Oil City” for the abundance of oil fields in the area. We set up the scroll in front of a Ranch Outfitters store and waited to see what the least populous and most conservative state of the nation had to say.
In general, the scroll has received the most enthusiastic responses in urban, liberal settings. We’ve struggled to garner much interest in the project in more rural, conservative locations, and Casper was no exception to this rule. Slowly but surely, we did manage to lasso in a handful of locals. Several of them scanned the scroll and then wrote similar entries to my own contribution (“Protect the 2nd and put God 1st”) that I had written in an effort to elicit far-right banter. I had mixed feelings about writing down something I didn’t believe in – primarily guilt stemming from the art of deception – but the experiment nevertheless produced interesting results.
A woman pointed out my phrase to her husband, saying, “Look, honey! Protect the 2nd and put God 1st. I thought you’d like that.”
“I do like that,” he agreed with a stoic cowboy nod. “I like that very much.”
We got a decent variety of contributions to the scroll, including a group of Japanese men who were in Casper to scout out the solar eclipse that is due to pass directly overhead on August 21st, 2017. Just as we were about to pack it up to make way for a Wells Fargo commercial shoot that was due to take place at 6 p.m., a girl in her early twenties spent a good fifteen minutes writing on the scroll. Her message (and subsequent interview) was about how suffocated she felt living in such a religious, conservative place as Casper. She was brought to tears as she explained how she was. “Tired of religion being more important than logic. We don’t need God. We need compassion. Look at these statements,” she went on. “Protect the 2nd and put God first … keep the west west … God is not dead. These are exactly the type of mindsets that are making me move to Minnesota in a couple months.”
I explained to her how we’ve struggled to get conservative viewpoints on the scroll and how I was surprised with how the most outspoken person in Casper was one of its few liberals.
“That’s because liberals have to speak louder to be heard in conservative towns,” she said.
We wished her luck with her move to Minnesota and packed up the scroll, walking down the street to follow up on an offer that a young man had made to us a bit earlier to come enjoy free sloppy Joe’s. We walked upstairs to a small office and found ourselves at a humble campaign rally for Tim Stubson, a Republican candidate running for U.S. Congress against Dick Cheney’s daughter. I was several minutes into a conversation with Tim Stubson by the time I matched his face to the giant portrait of him on the wall and made the connection.
“Oh wow,” I said. “You’re Tim Stubson. Can I interview you?”
“Sure,” he said. “I don’t see why not.”
I interviewed Stubson in his side-room office, collecting his thoughts on how many Americans feel underrepresented by their politicians and asking him about the Presidential race.
“Well, I can’t say that Donald Trump was my first, or second, or third, or even eighth choice,” he said. “But he is the candidate.”
We had a nice chat together and I thanked him for his time, sincerely wishing him luck against his “establishment” opponent. From Casper, we drove another several hours down desolate highways, eventually pulling off on some random ranchland in the middle of nowhere to watch an exciting lightning storm sweep across the horizon before heading to bed.
Cody is an old Wyoming cowboy and ranching town that has paid – and been paid by – the costs of tourism over recent decades due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance. We were excited to see that there was an authentic rodeo in town the night of our arrival, but our enthusiasm was significantly diminished when we found out that the Cody Rodeo is in fact every night during peak tourist season from June to August. There’s also a daily “shootout” on the main drag of the town that is, after all, named for Wild Bill Cody (Buffalo Bill).
We ate some lunch and then wandered in to an old-style saloon downtown. I curiously approached a group of six old-timers in cowboy hats who were playing poker at a corner table. The dealer saw me and asked if I wouldn’t like to play.
“How much is the minimum buy-in?” I asked.
“Forty dollars,” he said.
“Sounds about right to me.”
“Well then, what are you waiting for? Saddle up, partner.”
I took my seat and bought in for forty bucks, introducing myself to the group of classic locals and making my best attempt to remember all of their names. We played Texas Hold ‘Em and conversed about life in Cody, the state of the country and my Manuscript Across America project. They spoke candidly – and quite conservatively – about their desires for tighter immigration policy, a stronger military and a less restrictive Federal Government. I had finally found the outspoken Republicans I’d been seeking for the last six weeks! I instructed Bennett to go grab my camera and microphone, asking the gentlemen if they’d mind some casual conversational interviews as we played cards. Nobody at the table objected, so I hit record on the camera.
“So, where were we?” I began. “You fellas were saying something about immigration as I recall…”
A heavy silence fell on the entire table. The clatter of clay poker chips took on a deafening tone.
“I liked what you were saying there, Hank,” I tried again. “You thought that America needs to return to the old ways, right?”
The silence continued. Finally, a former English teacher at the head of the table spoke up.
“You might not believe this, coming from me,” he said. “But I think America would benefit most from everybody taking up a serious discipline of yoga and meditation.”
I conversed with the unlikely advocate for the spread of Eastern philosophies in the Western World and tried once again to pick up the dialogue where we had left off.
“Anyone else?” I asked. “Thoughts on what you guys think America needs most right now?”
“Alrighty then,” I concluded. “I’ll just assume that everyone else here agrees with Gary – that yoga and meditation are the keys to a prosperous America.”
This last comment finally evoked some rumblings from the table. Gary had meant what he said about yoga and meditation, but his poker-playing buddies weren’t quite willing to concede their own beliefs for his spiritual tendencies. Two of the guys offered me thoughtful interviews. One spoke about America “going to hell in a hand basket” and another described how decades of coal mining and oil production in the state of Wyoming didn’t even come close to matching the amount of carbon that was released into the atmosphere during a single Yellowstone wildfire. I was grateful for their opinions, though I must say that the camera changed the tone of the conversation significantly. Once again, I found myself digging for passionate, candid words from the right and coming up with little more than carefully phrased half-truths – or was I merely projecting my own twisted misconceptions about what being “conservative” actually means?
The filming had distracted me significantly from the poker game. I went from $60 to busted in a matter of minutes. I thanked the gentlemen for a good time and chalked up the $40 loss as what will probably be the biggest contribution I ever make to the Republican Party.
Bennett and I decided that we would swallow our pride and set up the scroll at the Cody Rodeo in spite of its tourist-trap overtones. On the way there, I spotted a gun store and pulled off the road, thinking I’d run inside real quick and shoot some b-roll footage to use in the documentary with interviews about the 2nd Amendment. I really didn’t think anything of it.
There were four guys chewing the fat inside the gun store. I introduced myself, explained the project and asked if I might be able to shoot some footage of their gun inventory (shoot some gun footage). The owner of the store suddenly cut in.
“What political party are you?” he asked.
“What?” I asked, truly confounded. “Political party? Does that … matter?”
“It sure does,” he said plaintively. “What’s your voting history? What political party are you registered with?”
I knew the answer that he wanted to hear, but I also reminded myself that the nature of Manuscript Across America has never been about deception; it’s been about putting out pens and paper for the general public to share their thoughts. No Borat tactics. No deliberate angle. No biases. Whoever writes, writes – and whatever they say, goes.
“Uhh, Democratic,” I answered.
“You gotta go,” he said immediately. “I don’t have any room in my life for Democrats. Period.”
“Whoa, really?” I was quite taken aback. I mean, we might be best of friends and we’d never even know it. What if I wanted to buy a gun?
He set in on a three-minute monologue about Obama being the downfall of this once-great country.
“I think the Democrats have done more damage to this country that we can’t get back in the last eight years with Obama – it’s been horrendous, just ridiculous. I mean, where do you even start? I’d have to say, number one, the implementation of a national healthcare system that’s totally debunk, it’s just ridiculous. And the people that voted for Obama to get that free healthcare, now they understand what their bills are, they’re going, ‘What the fuck just happened?’ The Canadians now laugh at us, at our healthcare system. The Democrats have thrown us back into the Stone Age. So, it’a a horrible, viscous cycle, the tug-of-war between the Democrats and the Republicans, but I’d still have to side with the Republicans even though they haven’t done a very good job of representing me and my views – not in the last two or three elections anyways. I just don’t have any room in my life for people that are behind…”
He sort of came to and realized that there was still a Democrat standing in his store.
“So wait a minute,” he said. “Then I assume that you’re either behind Hillary or Bernie? One of the two?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I like Bernie.”
“You gotta go,” he reiterated. “Out of my store.”
I chuckled because I actually thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
“Is that actually … legal?” I asked.
“Oh fuck. Yeah. Oh yeah. We can call dispatch and have you go, yeah. I want you out of my store.”
“On the basis of being a … Democrat?”
“Oh yeah. You gotta go. Before the shit hits the fan. We can refuse service to anyone. I’m asking you to leave right now. I’m asking you. Pretty soon I’m going to be telling you.”
He escorted me out the door and I turned to clarify his position.
“So, you’re kicking me out of your store solely on the basis of being a Democrat?”
“That’s totally on the basis of anyone that’s dumb enough to get behind fucking Bernie Sanders.”
And with that, the door closed. The door that opens between left and right. The door that opens between outside and inside. The door that opens between this and that. The door between two worlds of endless possibilities that will never be cracked open even a little bit – to explore or listen or learn or even tolerate – because of differing ideologies. Closed.
As we walked away and got back in the van, I realized that the experience fascinated me more than it angered me. Sure, it was disappointing to get kicked out of a gun store based on politics, but the incident made a lot of sense in terms of explaining why the scroll had attracted a much larger percentage of liberals in otherwise politically balanced settings.
Even though I had been laying out the paper for people from all backgrounds to share their thoughts on, there were still caveats. For one, the project itself reeked of progressiveness – not on purpose, but a rainbow of pens atop a piece of paper did have an air of “metaphysical koombaya stuff” as my Colorado Springs friend so eloquently pointed out. On top of that, there was my physical appearance – namely long hair, flip-flops and colorful T-shirts – that were far from a Republican billboard.
In spite of my genuine commitment to remaining a neutral documenter of others’ opinions, my own neutrality wasn’t always enough to convince people that the scroll was a safe, unbiased place to share ideas. This, coupled with the fact that those seeking social, racial, economic and environmental justice were way more likely to view the scroll as the ideal platform for their often-muffled voices than those content with the status quo made Manuscript Across America seem way more like a liberal-minded project than it was ever intended to be. In any event, it started to finally make a bit of sense why I had consistently struggled to attract large numbers of far-right spokespeople to the scroll when the far-left couldn’t get enough of it.
We drove to the rodeo and debriefed. Bennett was outwardly upset at the gun store incident. The guy had gotten under his skin.
“Don’t let it anger you,” I offered. “Just marvel at the absurdity.”
The wind picked up from out of nowhere and made scrolling a no-go. We drove fifteen minutes to the west and spent the night at a campground on Buffalo Bill Reservoir instead. The following morning, I convinced Bennett that we should return to Cody to try and uncover more of the fascinating social behavior that we had experienced the day before.
He sighed and reluctantly agreed: “It’s your show, ace.”
We set up the scroll on a street corner near the center of town. As per usual with more rural, conservative locations, it was slow going. I had to exert a lot of energy trying to reel people in to write. We did get a handful of contributors over the course of several hours, but few and far between were the types who enthusiastically ran up to the scroll with a genuine eagerness to be heard.
I noticed a gun store less than a block away and decided to go see about that elusive b-roll footage. Just as I had done the day before, I walked in, introduced myself, explained the project and requested permission to film.
“Oh, sure thing,” the owner told me. “Film as much as you’d like.”
I got the gun footage I had been looking for and asked the owner if he’d be up for an interview.
“Sounds great,” he said. “Where would you like me?”
We chatted for fifteen minutes without incident. Yes, he was plenty conservative and held numerous views that I didn’t agree with, but I found myself nodding along to his words the entire time. Even though his ideas were drastically different than my own, his reasons for having them made sense. I got the opportunity to listen carefully to his viewpoints and truly understand where he was coming from.
Ultimately, the difference between my two gun store visits was respect. The man on day two never asked what my political affiliation was because he saw me as an individual as opposed to a member of a group. He saw me as a person and not a number between one and two.
People on all sides of the political spectrum are guilty of writing off “the enemy” as just that, but it’s vital that we see beyond these harsh dividing lines and open up to one another as individuals. Whether it be a difference based on politics, race, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation or anything else, the sooner we start talking and listening to people outside of our usual comfort zone, the sooner we’ll realize that we are, at the end of the day, all humans. The sooner we can understand who “the other” is and why they think “like that,” the sooner we’ll be able to exist harmoniously and start working towards the greater good as an actual team instead of running in place as imaginary enemies.
After a painstaking two hours uploading photos and videos in a Cody saloon, we were finally ready to head west through Yellowstone National Park – an awesome but essentially unavoidable mass acreage between us and Montana.
The drive was a scenic, steady climb to over 8,000 feet above sea level where we threw ceremonial snowballs in memoriam of sweltering Wal-Mart parking lots of Nebraska yesterdays. We breathed in the sweet piney mountain air and gave thanks as we drove down into Yellowstone proper. Geysers erupted hot plumes of thermal water and sizzled out their steamy release into the Fire Hole River’s swift flow. A bison ambled along the main road, acting as an oblivious – or perhaps deliberately antagonistic – pilot car, forcing throngs of tourists to putter along behind it at a molasses crawl. Several elk nibbled on the valley’s still-green grass and the sun performed a slow-motion disappearing act behind the towering Tetons to the northwest. Just as we were about to leave the park, we spotted an osprey perched atop a dead limb over the river. Another good omen – further confirmation that our journey’s flight was still aligned with the feathery heavens.
Dinner and a Warriors’ game in West Yellowstone and then a short drive out of town to an unmarked dirt road leading into the forest. We parked Vananegans, popped the top and settled in for the night. I read Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now! Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America” until eyeball fatigue could no longer support my reading itch. Somewhere in between conscious thoughts about the geometry of America and dreams about what democracy sounds like I was brought back to the Montana forest: rain falling on the roof.
Sudden thunder rolled closer and closer as lightning bleached the night white. In an instant the storm was right on top of us, a locomotive derailing into a warehouse full of fireworks. Boom! Crack! Flash! Boom! We listened to the fury in mandatory humility and time-warped through the rest of the night, eventually awaking to the sun’s soft rays shining through the dewdrops on the grateful grass.
I had wanted to visit an Indian Reservation at some point during the trip in order to include a Native American perspective in the project. With a mission that intended to document the voices of Americans, it seemed that it wouldn’t be right to overlook the original inhabitants of this country. We checked a map and noticed the Flathead Reservation in northern Montana, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I called several members of the Tribal Council, doing my best to explain the project and my intentions for wanting to visit their land.
Understandably, my out-of-the-blue phone calls about wanting to set up a scroll of paper for Native Americans to write on was met with skepticism. Eventually though, I was able to make my intentions clear to a member of the Tribal Council named Rob. He told me later that it wasn’t until he checked out the Manuscript Across America website that he understood what the project was all about.
Rob invited us to set up the scroll in front of the Eagle Circle Monument in Pablo, Montana that commemorates the hundreds of tribal members who have served in the United States Military. We met several members of the Tribal Council who were most generous with their time and hospitality. Bennett inquired if he might be able to get a Flathead Reservation flag and a woman drove all the way to her house and back to gift him one. I conducted several interviews that turned out to be among the best of the entire journey. Near the end of our scroll session, Rob expressed his gratitude for our visit.
“When I heard that you hadn’t been to an Indian Reservation yet, that was it,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do my best to welcome you to our land and offer our perspective to your project. Don’t forget about us.”
We thanked everybody for their trust and kindness and drove north, taking Rob’s advice to spend the night at Blue Bay Campground on Flathead Lake. The following morning, we ended up setting up the scroll at the campsite next to ours where fourteen members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were enjoying a few days on the lake with family. I conducted a half dozen more interviews, highlighted by a bald eagle flying overhead as a young girl spoke about taking better care of Mother Earth.
Flathead Lake faded to a distant blue in the rearview mirror as we drove steadily west towards the panhandle of Idaho. The KKK is said to have its headquarters somewhere in the vicinity of Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene, directly in our path. Visions of stumbling upon some hate rally drifted in and out of my imagination, replete with a violent seizing and burning of the scroll. I watched the flames lick at the paper as smoke wafted up through a mob of hooded white supremacists, Bennett and I running for our lives – then I remembered I was driving.
We parked the van in Sandpoint and stepped out into the rain. I spotted a gun store and pulled out my audio recorder, slipping it into my breast pocket and wadding up toilet paper around the exposed part – a sort of poor man’s boutonniere. I took a look at myself in the mirror. Way too Californian. I put tape over the “A’s” part of my baseball cap and called it good.
The gun store owner turned out to be a great guy. He was the type of guy I’d love to go fishing with. He allowed me to take as much footage as I liked but declined an interview, saying that he didn’t want his words to be misinterpreted. He had a variety of shirts for sale with sayings like: “What do I feel when a terrorist dies? Recoil.” Another one said “Pro Choice” and had a hundred different guns pictured on it.
“I don’t believe in any of that stuff myself, but they sure do sell well,” he said.
He was quick to dispel our beliefs that Sandpoint was teeming with racists and gun-loving radicals.
“99.9% of folks around here are just normal, loving people,” he said. “We get a lot of visitors coming through here that think Northern Idaho is full of wackos, but those extremists are definitely the exception and not the rule. To be honest, I’ve never even been exposed to racism in all the years I’ve lived here. Not once.”
We thanked the kind man for his time and walked back out into the rain. Cars stopped from both directions and offered friendly waves for us to cross the street. Once again, my own judgments about a place and its people had been turned on their head. How many times would I have to learn this lesson?
The drive to Coeur d’Alene led us back to Interstate 90 where we grabbed dinner and got some recommendations on where to set up the scroll the following day. We drove out of town down a series of backwoods roads in search of somewhere to sleep for the night, eventually stumbling upon a mist-shrouded lake that looked like something out of a horror movie.
“This should do nicely,” I said.
Somewhere around 5 a.m. there was a rapping at the van window.
“Good morning,” I heard a man say outside. “Idaho State Police.”
“Brian!” came Bennett’s voice, suddenly wide awake. “There’s someone here that wants to talk to you.”
I crawled down from the pop-top and stepped outside to talk to the police officer. Seconds later, a backup patrol car pulled up. I willed myself awake and started in on a thorough explanation of Manuscript Across America. The officer looked at me rather bewildered as I handed him a business card and explained that we were just two road-weary travelers who had needed a place to sleep.
“What time did you get to bed last night?” he asked.
“I think around midnight,” I said.
“Did you happen to see a white pickup truck drive by here at any point?” he asked. “A lot of people come down to this lake to do drugs.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you there,” I said. “We’ve been asleep until now.”
He ran our ID’s and brought them back to me.
“Well,” he said, checking his watch. “You guys have only gotten about five hours of sleep by my estimation. It’s dawn now, so if you want to get some more rest, feel free.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Have a great day.”
We slept until 8 a.m. and casually made coffee by the van with the peace of mind that we had the Idaho State Police’s blessing. Back in town, we searched for a viable place to set up the scroll but wind, rain and a complete lack of pedestrians led us to travel on towards Seattle where our friend Andy would be waiting for us.
Andy greeted us at his home in Issaquah, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Seattle. He gave us a tour of the garden and animal corral where a horse and a goat ambled along inseparably. We drove to a megachurch with the hopes of setting up the scroll for the 5 p.m. service but the pastor thought it might be a distraction for the scheduled baptism. Fair enough. He also politely declined my offer to set it up the following morning.
We returned to the house and cooked up a proper barbecue. Andy and Bennett both fell asleep, so I drove solo to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where Jimi, a dear friend from Santa Barbara, was due to arrive at midnight. We rendezvoused at baggage claim and returned to Issaquah, sleeping in the luxurious two-story haven of the Vansion with a peaceful drizzle falling on the roof.
The next morning we drove straight for Olympic National Park, a gorgeous expanse of nature that is home to the only rainforest in the Lower 48. We found a campground on the coast and took a cold but invigorating swim in the Pacific Ocean. It had been over two months and 13,000 miles of driving since my last Pacific dip back in Santa Cruz.
A picturesque sunset faded into night and we lit a campfire and sang songs to my guitar. My song about one person that I had met in each location we had set up the scroll was slowly coming together.
I had been in contact with the Hoh Indian Tribe about setting up the scroll on their reservation, but the Tribal Elder I had spoken with hadn’t been able to get permission from the six necessary members of the Tribal Council, so we drove on to the Hoh Rainforest and set up the scroll at the main trailhead. The American flag at the ranger station was at half-mast. We soon learned of the tragic mass shooting that had taken place in Orlando the night before. Gun control had already been a hot topic for people’s written contributions all across the country, but now the issue was hotter than ever. We spoke with dozens of hikers and campers, commiserating over the hatred that plagues our country and praying for peace in America and throughout the world.
“If only everyone could find the time to appreciate the harmony of nature,” said a woman from Vancouver. “Perhaps then we could finally learn to honor each other and this beautiful world we live in.”
We listened to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” as we drove back towards Issaquah. The strained voices of survivors came over the radio as a rainbow emerged from the parting clouds. Our minds searched desperately for answers as we listened in stunned silence. What solutions are there for such hatred? How can we finally come together as a people to end murder and war? The answers seemed as fleeting as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The following morning, we drove into downtown Seattle and set up the scroll on a busy street corner near Pike Place Market. The objectives for Manuscript Across America had been varied, but one of my primary hopes was that the project would act as a vessel of peace – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – that would serve as an inspiration for myself and others to take an active role in creating the society in which we wished to live. While I knew that the project had indeed touched many people’s hearts and created a platform for countless beneficial conversations, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility as throngs of people hurried past our humble little scroll of paper on the corner.
“Care to share your thoughts?” offered Jimi.
“Step right up!” said Bennett, pens extended in both hands.
“Does anybody in Seattle have anything to say?” I asked the passing crowds. “Anything at all?”
A woman finally veered from the masses and picked up a pen to write. By the time she was finished, tears were rolling down her face.
“I’m just saddened beyond belief,” she told me. “I’m here in Seattle on business. I live in Orlando. We lost one of our dear friends in the shooting two nights ago. It makes no sense to me. No sense at all. I can’t understand how people can act this way. I want it to end.”