Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 4

In 1852, early white explorers to the Big Bend region of what is now Texas wanted to know if they’d survive a trip through the towering walls of Santa Elena Canyon, down the rapids of the Rio Grande. So, they launched an empty boat. Downriver, it came out the other side, nothing but planks and splinters.

Yesterday, as we walked a narrow dirt path, our voices echoing through that same canyon, the story seemed a fitting summation of the last four years. Mass pandemic death. Economic ruin for families and businesses. Hunger on a scale not seen in nearly a century. Rising hatred, sedition and insurrection. The divisions were evident even on the trail, where whole families walked maskless, and we ducked well out of their range, backs turned against their defiance.

Yet yesterday we made a pivot, perhaps toward healing, or at least something gentler and more humane. We returned to our hotel room to watch new history, to make sure it would actually happen, to be reassured that our new president and vice president would actually be sworn in.

At times I think that just returning to a status quo of four years ago, when so much remained undone, will itself be hard to manage. I’ve been thinking of the novel The Fixer, by Bernard Malumud, in which Yakov is falsely accused, then imprisoned, then put in isolation, given only a broom, which becomes his companion, like the Tom Hanks’ Wilson volleyball in Cast Away. It is only when prison guards take his broom away that Yakov’s world truly collapses; he is overjoyed when they give it back. In darker moments, I fear, with the simple absence of our now-departed president, all that’s happened is that we got our broom back.

Yet that pessimism is mercifully unsustainable in the face of yesterday’s joy and brilliance. Yesterday was a day given over to possibility. As we returned from the trail, and before continuing our journey eastward to collect Wyatt, we witnessed the clarity of a new poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, and her inspired transformative thinking:

“Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the Lake Rim cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

In the evening the wipers swept away the rain as we headed east down a darkened two-lane blacktop. I’d just received a note from a USC doctor, telling me I might be able to get a vaccine in the next few days in LA. We are already more than a thousand miles from home, masking up, careful not to get close, washing our hands constantly — caution bordering on paranoia. Should we go back? No, we decided. The appointment is not guaranteed, and we are committed now. We’ll move forward.

We found our home for the night, a cozy trailer behind a motel in Marathon, and watched the celebrations at the end of the day. Most stirring for me, the irrepressible rendition of “Let the Sunshine In”: singers of every color belting out the melody, a woman in the sunlight. before a river, dancing atop a picnic table, writhing, spinning her coat above her writhing body: “LET THE SUNSHINE, LET THE SUNSHINE IN. THE SUNSHINE. IN….”

There will be times when, again, it will feel like all we have is our broom back. But yesterday was not one of those days. Yesterday suggested, we have a chance, if we choose to take it.

And so we drive on. Today we approach the halfway point of our journey, San Antonio, where we will rest, catch up on a mountain work, and resume.

Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 3

Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 5

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