The not so great American Road Trip


It is rare for this blog to be based on one image! I am writing another piece right now, but I am in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina right now and wanted to write some. I technically drove for six hours to get that image, and will hopefully be getting many more tomorrow on an architecture shoot, but I wanted to share a few events and reflections.

When I was young, I used to love going to hotels. Sitting in one now, alone, for the second time in my life, I can say that they do not quite hold the same allure. There was something quite amazing about travelling with my parents through a dark countryside across the expanse of this nation. I used to feel safe in the back seat of the car that I just drove by myself for an entire afternoon and evening alone.

Road trips were a major facet of my childhood, and they were surely the most distinct vacations I can remember. There were the sights, of course, and the cities and natural wonders we saw as a family are pinned up among many fond memories. However there was a deeper, more notional experience that has stuck with me and shaped some of how I approach and think about the landscape of this country, and our place in it.

I remember distinctly as a child coming home from my cousin’s house in the adjacent town to ours. I have picked at this memory before, picked at the symbolism of the road at night, being safe and carried by something else in control through a landscape that was lit, at best, by only the moon. The countryside was almost searchable with the eyes, but in practicality, impenetrable and dangerous to navigate. There was already a way, though, and the road unfolded in front of the car’s headlights; the car hugged to the curves of the road guided by my father.


When I learned to drive myself I was impressed more so by my father’s ability to stare at the road not in rapt attention or with heavy eyelids but with a vigilant disinterest. He perhaps let his thoughts but ultimately not his attention wander. It is a skill I do not seem to have, and I am lulled into drowsiness by highway driving. So it was with wariness I set off for a six hour drive to South Carolina, with one evening of travel followed by photographing one of my dad’s buildings. I was excited to be working in the field that I had chosen to try to specialize in (architectural photography), and was willing to make a challenging drive to do it, even better that it was for my dad.

It was raining on and off, but two hours into the drive it got particularly bad. The rain laid across the windshield abstracting the road in front of me. A lack of eyeglasses and poor windshield wipers threatened to eliminate my limited visibility of the distorted taillights just a few yards ahead of me. Our pace on the highway dropped below 40 miles per hour. My eyes anxiously passed back and forth from what was in front to the rearview mirror, with a great fear that a truck would come barreling out of the sheets of rain, unseen.

Up ahead, I saw wisps of clouds forming and starting to swirl into a distinct and menacing pattern. It couldn’t be more than 200 yards up the road, slightly to the right and moving left. The car ahead of me pulled off to the margin and I did too, my eyes utterly fixated on what I thought was a tornado forming, and again frantically searching for a possible route of egress. Around it? Through it? Off the side of the highway to a side road? A U-turn through the median? I stayed put. The vortex passed to the left and the car to my front started moving again. I was wired with adrenaline but kept going. I suppose the car out in front of me disappeared into the deluge, and I was for a moment seemingly alone on the highway.

I looked at my own death in a way that does not often happen, even for how much I try to think about it. Even as I would criticize the comfortable society that seemingly shielded me from such considerations. I felt in my flesh that truly we tend to take on our lives with faith in whatever gives us some assurance of personal security, and in that moment, how feeble and faithless I felt in anything I could do to secure my own safety. Every breath of life taken by you or me is a common grace from God, and for assurance beyond that, I cling to Christ- surely everything else in a moment like that feels feeble by comparison.

As I drove on, the rain cleared, and then I passed through another storm less vicious. It eventually cleared entirely. I drove for a while without the podcast I was listening to, but then turned back to it to pass the time. It was a multi part story of the fall of the Roman Republic. Certainly a worthwhile thing to listen to, but even more so as one drives across a portion of this country during politically tumultuous times. I was struck by how some of the outlandish things that happened in antiquity did not seem too far off from some themes that repeat themselves again throughout history. Of course the details and dynamics shift, and the overall backdrop of technology changes, but I think it is a testament to the limited capacity of humanity to rise above its own station. Perhaps it’s even a lack of creativity that we cannot find new problems for ourselves. Class struggle, greed, aspirations for power, depleting natural resources, too much credit, so on and so forth. I kept driving.

The GPS in my phone wasn’t working with more accuracy than about a mile, so I had the pleasure of navigating, as I used to, by looking at a map and trying to find the roads that were on the map as I passed them. It was much easier on a phone than with a paper map, but I felt unsure of my exact location in one way that I hadn’t felt in a long time, and began to slip out of some self assurance I always feel in Richmond. That city in which I know even some roads down to the placement of their cracks and potholes, even more so the overall layout. I was passing through an unknown (and flat) landscape at an explosive clip. I was driving towards another black wall of clouds.

It rained hard and soft, and it got dark. I saw a bit of lighting. I was weary of travelling. I finally arrived in the right city, I took a wrong turn and saw the scene photographed at the top of the page.

It is a far more sardonic photo than I am used to taking, and I have rarely ever allowed myself to take a photograph that could even have the potential as being interpreted as irreverent to the Jesus I profess and cling to. However I am also convicted by the extent to which I have maintained a private faith. This lukewarm faith is the petri dish in which prosperity theology might begin to colonize. A faith which clings to comfort instead of the cross of Christ, an instrument of torture and execution (which was mentioned in the Roman history podcast, actually). However I took it if only to write this post, criticizing for a moment the commercialized faith that speaks out of one side of its mouth along the highway, a halfway parted lip service to “Judeo-Christian Values”. A strange vestige of a former sort of America.

I drove on Route 74 in North Carolina on the way down. Partly named the “American Indian Highway”, it later turned into the “Andrew Jackson Highway” and I was slapped with the irony.

Christianity in America is a hard thing to unravel, but I think it may be safe to say that a large portion of what is preached is bad theology and bad practice. Jesus calls broken people all the same, and we all have a brokenness before the standards that He fulfills for us. Oh how I don’t want to be comfortable, though, comfortable in this faith. I believe that Christ’s death is a security that frees one to really engage the world, preaching Good News in His name. It’s something that I’m still working on, working out my salvation with fear and trembling.

I drove something like 300 miles today. The great American road trip is a genre of photography that used to be very attractive to me, it is not so much any more. I have struggled to find words to write about my traveling photographs, mostly because without Christ I feel as though I can only rewrite the same sad song written by Alec Soth or Robert Adams before me on the American open road. No I do not want to keep playing those notes. Sometimes though I hear the tune played on the open road, as I work my way down to another job.


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