Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across America

This essay was originally published on Medium.com under the title “Returning East: Lessons Learned on a Pandemic Road Trip.”

Whereas our trek West as our road trip began in January had been motivated by the urgent need to arrive, our return trip was intentionally drawn out, our desire to avoid returning to reality for as long as possible. We budgeted two weeks for our drive from Park City, UT to Boston, MA. Two weeks in which to traverse this strange, beautiful country. Two weeks in which to reroot ourselves in family — visit my grandparents’ graves in Oklahoma City, bring our son home for a holiday weekend. Two weeks in which to say goodbye to “Out West,” home of our ski bum test run, and prepare ourselves for a return to city life.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaBefore I delve too deeply into the drive, I want to reiterate how healing the trip was in general. I recently read an article by the Urban Monk regarding brain plasticity. The idea is that patterns are stuck in our brain, both healthy habits and unhealthy habits, both beneficial ways of thinking and destructive ways of thinking. Trauma can get stuck in our brains. But the good news is that it doesn’t need to be permanently stuck because our brains are plastic with the ability to change. Traveling somewhere new is an exercise to gain greater brain plasticity. I truly believe that all of our stops and having to figure out new places on this road trip kept me in the present moment, changing my brain’s dependance on routine, the auto-pilot sensation that came with so many months of being at home.

The beginning of our drive “back East” brought us perhaps the most important road trip lesson of all: sometimes the best experience is the one that wasn’t even on your itinerary.

As March 2021 drew to a close and April opened before us it was time to go home. We would find ourselves in St Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New York — cities of ever-expanding population that pulled us inevitably back toward our urban existence. Our days were no longer spent marveling at mountains or exploring personal and national histories, but working in Marriotts and replenishing the food stores that would get us from one Zoom meeting to the next. It was a stark change from the silence of our snowy walking paths. But before we arrived at our destination, we had a few more things to learn from the mountains, deserts, and prairies along the way. The beginning of our drive “back East” brought us perhaps the most important road trip lesson of all: sometimes the best experience is the one that wasn’t even on your itinerary.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaWe left Park City on March 20th, with an itinerary that would take us through some of the most lauded locales of the Southwest. Our first stop was Zion National Park where we’d elected to try “glamping” at Under Canvas, yet one more chance, we thought, to commune with the nature that had been so influential to us throughout the winter. But glamping, it turns out, isn’t all that glam with the March chill creeping in and two dogs demanding our attention. The wood burning stoves might’ve kept the cold at bay, but the need to refill them every 90 minutes or so led to something of a sleepless night.

In the park, we found that COVID restrictions required sightseers to enter the park by bus. Tickets were only a dollar, but sold daily on a lottery basis — so basically impossible to get. Luckily we learned that one could access the park by bike, and our time at Zion was saved by cycling into the incredible scenery.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across America(One other travel hack we learned about was Rover.com. Dogs are not allowed inside most National Parks, but the Rover app helped us find wonderful dog sitters in nearby towns so that our dogs could be well-looked after while we were biking or hiking. I kept this app on my phone and have now used it all over the country. I would say that it is great for daycare, but I haven’t had such good luck with walking or boarding services on the app.)

Our fortunes continued to improve as we left Zion and drove south through the Grand Canyon toward Flagstaff. It was a beautiful, desolate drive and John and I were just overwhelmed by the expanse of land, the solitude and the beauty. Red earth, plateaus, long stretches of nothing but orange and auburn bright against blue sky. We crossed the Colorado river close to Lee’s Ferry and Lake Powell, stopped at the bridge to buy some great books from a small gift shop — Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and David Gessner, place-based writers emblematic of the American West. Interestingly, all three of these writers also had strong connections back East, Gessner originally from Boston. I was in good company, it seemed, among writers deeply affected by the landscape that now surrounded us.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaFrom Flagstaff we drove to Santa Fe. Departing Arizona and heading into New Mexico continued our experiential lesson in expansiveness. The desert really felt deserted. It was nerve wracking, but also extremely beautiful. There was always this fear just below the surface — what if we were to break down here? How would we ever get help? For a city person to drive through hours and hours of nothing is quite something. Accustomed to 24/7 road side assistance, the ability to order anything and receive it quickly, the lack of apparent help or support in the event of danger took us back to an earlier era of self-reliance. With a survivalist’s frame of mind, the red rocks and landscape were more than a beautiful backdrop. They spoke to me, “We are more than just iconic scenery, you must live to tell about it. You must have gas, you must have water, you must know how to repair your own car.” The thrill of the road trip was wrapped up in the beauty, for sure, but making it through to the other side felt brave and like an accomplishment too.

Closures and vacancies due to COVID were evident all over New Mexico, but the landscape as we approached the civilization of Albuquerque was a balm for two easterners not ready to let go of big sky, aridness, and an early taste of spring. Despite all the major museums being closed in Santa Fe, galleries were open, and the Saturday we were there, we were treated to perfect weather in which to walk and take in the town. We meandered through the galleries in the Santa Fe Railyard where there was a lively outdoor market and contemporary art museum. We were attracted to the large oil paintings in one gallery, canvases painted with photographic realism, and when I asked the owner if it was okay to bring our dogs in, she brightened.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across America“Of course, just about every gallery in Santa Fe is dog friendly.”

Our Australian Labradoodle and long haired Dachsund never fail to be conversation starters.

“Where y’all from?”

When we explained we were from Boston, and in the midst of our drive East, the gallery owner was quick to ask if we planned to visit Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AK on our way.

I was a little embarrassed to admit that after Santa Fe and a stop in Oklahoma City to pay respects at the gravesites of my grandparents, I hadn’t plotted out our road trip journey with much intention. But upon checking the map and seeing it wasn’t too far out of the way, we decided her mentioning it was a sign we should head there. Turns out it would actually encapsulate our experience.

We had a wonderful 24 hours in Santa Fe, where we stayed in the room at the La Posada hotel where the former mistress of the property, Julia Staab, went crazy and killed herself and is known to haunt hotel guests. I immediately ordered American Ghost a book written about Julia by her great-great-granddaughter and was incredibly edifying with regard to the town’s first and most prominent Jewish family.

From there we made our way to Amarillo TX, reading about Julia’s clan as well as well known Santa Fe artists like Georgia O’Keefe as well as Edgar Lee Hewitt and “The Eight,” artists who would frequent Santa Fe during the early part of the Twentieth Century, putting it on the map as an artist’s colony. Their art attracted funds and tourism to Santa Fe but was also responsible for portraying a romanticized view of the American West and Native Americans to patrons on the East coast. Much of this art was responsible for the misrepresenting the reality of that life, where Native Americans lived in robust communities and were not lone unicorns, not savages or curiosities.

When finally, we pulled off I-40 in Amarillo to see Cadillac Ranch, it seemed art, or at least color would be the overriding theme of our journey. This long row of Cadillacs half buried in a rancher’s land is spray painted over by tourists on a daily if not hourly basis. We arrived at dusk with the row of cars set off by a blue sky turning periwinkle and springtime green of grass. If we felt like we’d begun to appreciate the wild art of the American landscape, we had much more in store.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across America

Walton family patronage has made Bentonville an oasis of art and education. Crystal Bridges, one result of that patronage, is a museum of American Art, but not just any museum. There, exhibits are hung thematically as opposed to chronologically or by culture, resulting in a viewing experience set apart from that of any other art museum I’ve visited — and a commensurate level of appreciation on my part. Wouldn’t you know a place that we hadn’t originally planned on our road trip was the highlight and took the theme of experiential art, sculpture, painting and architecture to a new level.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaCrystal Bridges’ curation provided a critical commentary on the approach taken by exhibitions such as those once hung by “The Eight” of the Santa Fe School in the early part of the Twentieth Century. At Crystal Bridges, traditional American art was hung alongside Native American art and African American art of similar time periods offering a more complete and complex picture of historical periods and for me highlighted the bias of the white lens through which many museums are curated. It was a timely lesson, completely in line with what I was learning in DEI training I was doing around anti-racist approaches art and cultural institutions should take. Something about being in Arkansas was liberating, maybe freeing the curators and educators there from an East Coast, “Old School,” point of view with regard to telling American stories. I so appreciated our time in this museum. It felt like the curators at Crystal Bridges were really on to a new way of hanging art and educating the public.

John and I spent an afternoon and the following morning at the museum and its gardens. The architecture and sculpture in its acres of gardens being a true part of the experience. In addition, flowers and trees were in bloom in late March, it was mild, we were being treated to another phase of spring and the natural world awakening. A quick check of the weather app on my phone told me this was not what was waiting for us in the Northeast.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaAs we drove out of Arkansas, we listened to Alice Walton’s audio guide of her collection, which further emphasized what we had felt walking through the galleries. Wow. She was not a woman raised on museums or with an Art History education. She learned much as a collector and had a very intuitive and contemporary take on what she purchased for the museum. She had expert advice yes, but she collected with a desire to have strong female representation and to represent artists with differing perspectives. For this Art History student from Smith College, raised on our American cities’ major museums and the great European masters, her point of view was not only refreshing but electrifying.

After Crystal Bridges, our road trip began its turn toward reality. The wide distances of the desert were filled first with grasses, then with trees, and finally with the concrete, cars, and apartment buildings of our city slicker life, an architecture and a lifestyle far less connected to the land. Still, the drive home was incredibly stimulating and took our minds off of the work we had in front of us. Taking our cue from road trip lessons, we had decided that after raising our family in Boston, it was time to sell the home our children no longer inhabited. It was just too big for the two of us, too much to keep up with. We felt ready to part with much of our stuff. Living in Air BnB’s and out of a car for 6 months can have that effect on you. In letting go of the surroundings we’d carefully curated over 20 years in Boston, we freed ourselves to see more clearly the beauty of the art objects all around us, and it was an experience we wanted more of.

road trip, Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across AmericaWe’ve been back in Boston for three months now, and I miss the red rock, the Ozarks, the mild weather, the unexpectedness. As I write this most of that landscape is in the midst of a drought and record heat wave. I think about the expanse of desert in such extreme conditions and I worry about the lack of water. I wonder if our potential relocation west would add to the problem of this fragile landscape or if we could settle with sensitivity, with appreciation, and a desire to do no harm?

As I write this our Boston home is under contract, with a closing in little over a month. I am purging our belongings, letting go. Things are slowly falling into place. I credit our drive out and back as the catalyst for our transformation, a literal change to my brain’s wiring. To see and feel the distance was important; to see the beauty, endlessly affecting. It’s something architects know, and sculptors: the profound impact our surroundings have on us, the undeniable impact of relationships of space. I think it spoke to two people used to crowded urban centers — it said, there is more room than you think, more opportunity, possibility for a change, even in a pandemic, even in a drought, even at your age. I’m so glad we took the time to listen.

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