The Kindness of Strangers

As always, photos of my travels are at the bottom.

The van is a conversation starter.

Everywhere I go, people want to know about it. Do I live in, where do I shower, how do I cook, does it have a bathroom, what’s the gas mileage? Never before have I been approached by so many complete strangers.

While I am introverted by nature, I find myself enjoying these conversations. It is refreshing to be approached with unfettered curiosity, to be able to bond with people over something so special to me.

Most of these conversations are brief, fleeting interactions in the scope of daily life. And yet they stay with me. The father at a park in Vermont who pulled over to ask about the van. The couple in New Hampshire who shared their favorite hidden camping spot. The widow at a library who told me about her recently passed husband while our dogs played. The woman at a park in Maine who joyfully shared her favorite swimming hole (thanks Tammy-Ann!) The grandfather in his 80s who maintains a trail in Maine and allowed us to use his personal hose to fill up our water tank.

Such kindness shown by so many people. People I do not know and likely will never see again.

Ours is a country divided. The cultural split between where America has been and where it is going creates a crack that threatens to split the country in two. Hatred spews from the news and social media and I can’t help but wonder where the tipping point lies.

But these conversations remind me of community. Of the way people have been coming together for thousands of years to help each, to ease the burden of survival. Of the fact that there is more that binds us together than separates us. That no person is an island.

“We are all useless alone. Thank goodness we’re not alone”

Everything Everywhere All At Once

These interactions also remind me of one of the many reasons I wanted to embark on this trip in the first place. To see my country. To know my country and the people in it. To see how people are living, what communities look like. To discover or discern what it means to me to be an American.

I have always had a complicated relationship with my country of origin. I grew up with the same “land of the free, home of the brave” propaganda as everyone else. And yet something always stuck in the back of my mind, a nagging thought that perhaps this was not it, was not the pinnacle of living, of human achievement.

Maybe a country built on slavery and genocide was not the right foundation for success. Maybe separating families into islands, removing people from nature, destroying third spaces, and paving roads for consumerism in every direction was not how people were meant to live.

I grew up in Upstate New York, ancestral home of the Haudenosaunee people, specifically in Seneca territory. We learned about longhouses, the three sisters, and how small communities of people lived together and supported each other. They shared in the good time and the bad times, and even in 4th grade I thought – well that sounds better than this. Why aren’t we doing that?

People take offense when you don’t have overt pride in being an American. But the knowledge of the foundation of my country sits heavy in my gut. I know that people around the world came here seeking a better life. And I know that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there was more possibility for social mobility here than anywhere else. I also know the limitations of this mobility, the importance of the right skin tones, and the underlying violence that kept people separated.

And yet I am nothing if not an American.

I am, as Walt Whitman said “born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.”

My roots in this country go back generations on each side. I am descended from farmers and coal miners who fought to give their children a better life than they had, time and time again.

I want to see this country geographically, climb its mountains, swim its shores, and explore its woods. But I also want to see this country as it truly is. Not as the news says, or the history books, not what the government tells me. I want to cook it all down, distill some kind of clarity.

It is an identity crisis that divides us. To truly reconcile with the past of America means changing the narrative we have pushed for generations. It means admitting the hurt and the horrors committed to turn this country into what it is today. It means to atone for the sins of our ancestors – which is really what terrifies people the most. But on the other side of that is possibility.

Who can we be when we are honest about who we have been?

Snapshots of the last week

Published by Jessica Reilly, Writer

Writer, cannabis aficionado, and poetry lover

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