Cross Country Road Trip: Lessons in Wonder, Beauty, and Injustice

Since we last wrote, we’ve completed our epic one-month cross country road trip. The camper is stored at a generous former congregant’s home. We’ve landed in Hawai’i. And we’ve finally had a few moments to reflect on this tremendous opportunity. There was never a lack of wonder along the way: vistas, mountains, deserts, oceans, full moons, night stars, big trees. There was also never a lack of planning to do! While we most certainly do not intend to complain about this amazing cross country adventure, we did learn a couple things that will aid us in our return across the country next summer. Namely, we’d like to take more time. A month seems like plenty of time to cross the country, see some key sights, visit with friends. It’s not. At least it’s not for us. Popping up and taking down the camper—with a toddler—means we simply need more time everywhere we go. And having a toddler means we need more time, too. Since we’re both still working—teaching online for Elizabeth and freelance writing for me—the time we typically dedicate to work, relaxation, and exercise was usually consumed by driving, planning, setting up, or taking down. We drove when Riah napped, which took away important work time. This isn’t a complaint as much as it is a lesson learned. There is always more planning to do when you’re traveling every few days. And as someone prone to taking on too many projects, I learned that agreeing to multiple freelance writing gigs while finishing a book project might not be the best idea while traveling across the country. Lesson learned. I hope 🙂

picacho peak

Picacho Peak on Christmas Day. Photo by the intrepid Elizabeth

There were also some times and places on the road that intersected with our values—often in conflicting ways—and may have caused us to stand on a soap box or two. Three stand out among the rest.

  1. Desert Mansplainations

You have likely heard the term “mansplain.” Mansplaining refers to when a man—many times a man with the best of intentions—over explains something in a pejorative manner to a woman, believing that he knows more about the topic (often simply because he is a man), his mansplaining manner clouded by his privilege. For example, this has happened countless times to my mother because she is a property manager dealing with a host of men who think they know more about whatever project she is managing: construction, building codes, business, etc.

Our time in the desert was full of mansplainations from well-intentioned men who just didn’t know when to stop. In West Texas we experienced some car trouble. It was something I anticipated because of battery issues prior to leaving on our adventure. So, we were prepared with a jump box. Well, we were well on our way to jumping off the car, ready to hook up the camper and hit the road when a man approached with a newer, shinier jump box. There was nothing wrong or mansplainy about his approaching. He simply noted that he saw our hood up and wanted to know if we needed help. This is a nice thing to do.

The mansplaination began when he repeatedly referred to us as “sweetie,” and “honey,” while incorrectly showing me how to jump of my own car (the car we were already properly jumping off). He proceeded to give us advice about how to purchase a better jump box. Hear me clearly: there is nothing wrong with offering to help a woman with car trouble. Also hear me clearly: there is something wrong with assuming that the woman knows nothing about cars.

Something similar happened in Las Cruces when a faulty outlet wouldn’t provide the charge needed for our jump box. When I asked our neighboring camper if we could plug into his outlet, he proceeded to berate Elizabeth regarding how to turn on the outlet, which she had already informed him—repeatedly—was broken. Instead of listening when I told him the problem, he assumed that neither of us knew what we were doing, while also calling us “honey,” and “darling.” Note: I have decided to respond to such behavior by calling any man who calls me “honey,” “sweetie,” “darling,” the same name.

And I won’t even go into how an Atlanta mechanic talked to me before we left on our adventure. Suffice it to say Fox News was blaring in the background as he informed me that women should stay at home with children because it’s naturally how we’re created and that guns are what make America great.

The West Texas man did sincerely seem to have good intentions, but he illustrated “benevolent sexism,” which is the sweet kind of sexism that assumes that women are incapable of handling any kind of “manly” situation, such as fixing a car. And the guy in Las Cruces was really just being a jerk.

A word to men: don’t be like this. Listen. Don’t assume that women are incapable of anything. For all these mansplainers knew, I’m a mechanic.

On the bright side, for the bad rap that West Texas gets, it sure is beautiful. We enjoyed stunning desert views, expansive sunsets, and wide starry nights. I’d go back with my jump box in hand, darling.

west tx sunset

Elizabeth and Riah walk toward the sunset in West Texas

  1. Critiquing Consumer Christmas

We celebrated Christmas under a full desert moon in Picacho, Arizona. As we prepared for our adventure, we got a little bit of flack—likely well intentioned—from some friends and family regarding celebrating Christmas on the road. “Do you mean Riah won’t have a Christmas tree?” someone balked. “Is Santa not going to visit?” questioned another. Hear me clearly: I’m not critiquing anyone who puts up a Christmas tree and invites Santa to visit. Most years I deck the halls and trim the tree. But a tree and Santa are not required for celebrating Christmas. In fact, Santa isn’t really something we’re doing or plan to do with Riah. As much as it is possible, we’d like to take as much of capitalism and consumerism out of Christmas. As we discuss in the “alternative economies” section of our values, this is something we’re trying to do all year long. It’s challenging because capitalism and consumerism are understood as normative; it is virtually impossible to escape them. And we participate in them. We bought Riah a book and two little cars—a kid driving red dump truck and a kid driving a pink convertible—for Christmas. We purchased all of it at a chain store and I imagine all of the products were made in factories in China where workers are paid tremendously unfair wages. As much as we try buy fair trade and locally created products, we’re oftentimes a part of the problem and we acknowledge this.

old mesilla, las cruces

We saw plenty of fabulous Christmas trees along the way, including this one in Old Mesilla, Las Cruces

But on Christmas, it was our delight to give our child one small gift. It was our delight that we didn’t tell him all about Santa bringing him tons of toys that he doesn’t need. It was our delight to go on a beautiful hike in the desert, play in the dirt, eat a simple yet special meal together, and then do yoga under a big full moon.

I hope all of our Christmases look like this. Less stuff. Less consumption. New traditions.

christmas jumps

Family jumping hikes on Christmas in Picacho, AZ

  1. Contaminated Beauty

From Arizona we made our way into California. After a fun-filled stop and visits with friends in Oceanside, we drove halfway to the bay area, setting up camp in Visalia, which is the gateway to Sequoia National Park. Forget the magic of Christmas lights and Santa…there is nothing more magical than hiking through the sequoias in the snow on New Year’s Day. Seriously. It was utterly stunning and completely worth the snow chains we had to buy for our tires in order to drive up the mountains.

sequoia

Hiking through the sequoias in the snow on New Year’s Day

But it also threw us into a state of cognitive dissonance. Juxtaposed with these stunning monoliths, with the glistening snow and fresh air and ancient redwoods, was the fact that we were camping in the San Joaquin Valley. And I’m not talking about contrasting microclimates, though there was over three feet of snow in the redwoods and a mere bite of frost in our campground. Rather, the dissonance stirred from this stunning beauty—the national treasure that is the Sequoia National Park—and the complete cesspool that is the San Joaquin Valley. And it’s a cesspool that we’ve created. Did you know that the San Joaquin Valley has the highest water contamination rate in California and one of the highest in the country? Did you also know that it’s where the vast majority of your produce comes from? Primarily due to fertilizer run-off, the water is virtually undrinkable. Yes, the water that washes all over almost all the food you eat is contaminated. Everywhere you go smells like piss or cow poo. Flanking either side of the highway are farms overflowing with cattle crammed into the tiniest of stalls awaiting slaughter. When the cattle farms end, orange groves begin. And by orange groves I mean enormous factories with cheerful signs reading “Cuties” and “Halos.” There are trees, for sure. And to be honest, they are beautiful. But the toxins sprayed over them from airplanes are not. And the factories bearing the “farm fresh” names of the produce that fills our holiday stockings chug smoke and toxins into the air.

We know the names. I assign them as research projects to my students: Driscoll, Cutie, Halo. The main producer of our strawberries plant, grow, and harvest amidst the piss, the stench, the toxins. My students debate the ethics of such companies in my classes. We rage and tweet and write about how poorly the workers are treated, how harmful the practices are for the environment. Particularly when we discuss The Sexual Politics of Meat, we rage against factory farming with its unjust treatment of workers, the environment, and animals. These are all things I talk about and teach about and write about…from afar.

And there we were, setting up camp on the contaminated soil, peeling our damn clementines, purchasing water so that we can drink and brush our teeth. As I stood on my rickety soap box I wanted to do what I do in class, and what many of my students are quick to do upon first learning about unjust food practices. I wanted to wag my finger—or raise my middle one—at the CEOs of Driscoll, Halo, Cutie, at all the corporate greed that leads to creating an entire valley where all who live smell the shit of injustice, where the virtues of farmers are so burdened by poverty that they can’t do anything about it. Instead, however, I have to hop off my soapbox and tell myself the same thing I tell my students when they simply want to blame “the man” for the unjust food system that reigns supreme: we created this.

The CEOs need critiquing. We all need to change our consumer practices so that we don’t support companies that treat workers, the environment, and animals so inhumanely. But we are also responsible for this. We—you and me—are all responsible for the stench that wafts through the San Joaquin Valley. We have created a system that forces animals into unlivable pens, factories where workers drown in vats of manure, soil so filled with toxins that it seeps into otherwise good water, thus making it harmful to people and animals who drink it. The farmers who grow the majority of the food Americans eat are unable to drink their own damn water because it is so contaminated. This is clearly a broken, wretched, unjust, sinful system. And we are all culpable. This is a world we have created. Because we want California raspberries in our North Carolina oatmeal. Because we want tropical fruit in winter climates. Because we think the only way to get enough protein is by consuming animal flesh. Because we don’t see the manure lagoons or smell the stench of the factory farms or taste the toxicity of the water. Because we don’t see it, we act like it doesn’t exist. So, we eat our Halos and dice our strawberries. The lungs of workers—most often poor persons of color—grow sick from toxins. The earth weeps contaminated water. Animals are slaughtered every twelve seconds.

Beautiful redwoods. Adorable orange groves. Sweet land of liberty. And the stench of injustice fills our bellies.

sequoia vista

Vistas in Sequoia National Park

These myriad experiences mingled with the beauty, the wonder, the exhaustion. All our senses, our minds, and our hearts burned, raged, grew, marveled. Let us not stand so righteously on our soapbox that we forget there are mirrors hinged to the lid. It is my hope that when our little family catches a glimpse of our reflection, we do everything we can to make the changes needed to create more beauty and more justice.

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