Words and images by Naz Kawakami
Me and Holden left that pubescent love den in Nebraska and headed east toward Chicago, stopping for a night in Des Moines.
I had low expectations for all of these flat middle states and have so far been pleasantly surprised. Omaha felt a little threatening but Ogallala was a paradise, and Des Moines was much the same.
How do I measure the liveability of a city or town? By three factors: the architecture, the price of a drink, and the way locals look at me. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is actually very nice to look at. The city is historical and antiquated and hasn’t quite had its skyline dominated by highrises and big fuck off mirror-paneled condos. Things are made of brick and mortar and entice one to explore. 6/10
That night, Holden and I found ourselves at a multi-level barcade called Up-Down. There we screamed over 50-pointers on ski ball and attempted to hustle some drunk local into betting they could win (fun context: Holden is a semi-pro competitive Street Fighter (the video game, not the felony misdemeanor)). For $30, we got 2 pints, 2 tall cans, 2 slices of pizza, and 2 hours of games. 8/10. Not bad at all.
Finally, the way locals look at me. Being a new face in a small town is a difficult thing. In Casper, Wyoming, the locals stared at Holden and me like we had come to burn their church and steal their women back to our tribe, a sort of suspicious, rabid disdain. It cast a shadow on what could very well be a cool town. We felt unsafe. In Ogallala, a cowboy put his arm around me and sang, ‘Lightening strikes / Maybe once, maybe twice.’ In Des Moines, the locals placed us somewhere in the middle in that they really paid us no mind at all: no looks, no glances, no impression. We enjoyed the same sort of anonymity we have in New York. Nobody gave a shit about us, which is just the way we like it. 7/10.
We arrived in Chicago—an underappreciated city by the standards of the above livability criteria—where Holden would depart from, and we began the sort of pondering that happens when the end is nigh. “How fucking awful was this?’ we asked each other over and over. Holden left that morning (not before we ate Chicago dogs on a Great Lake and I panic-punched a bird out of the air for attempting to steal my $8 sausage) and I went on to be graciously hosted by my new friend, Ted. I pushed on toward a relaxing series of nights at my aunt’s place in Hamilton, right outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, but left alone and stationary without any antics to distract me, started to think harder about what America might be.
I’m dictating this from behind the wheel of the rented Nissan Murano which has finally begun to crumble. I hit a nasty pothole going 85 around the Ohio/Pennsylvania border and tore the rear bumper right off on its left side. With the help of The James Brand’s Cache River, I pulled out a screw that was securing the spare tire compartment and used it to prop this bumper up. Hopefully, it hangs on long enough to return this piece of shit, the rental place none the wiser. I’m nearing the end of this trip, and have to write this final entry, which feels a bit like having to put a pin in the nation, a neat little bow on the concept of ‘America’. Even worse, I pitched this series of stories, so I can’t even blame an editor for putting me in this dumb high-pressure journalism box.
I’ve seen and done a lot these last 33 days. I drank with frat boys in North Carolina. I drove off a cliff in Arizona. I had an intimate moment with a family of rams one crisp blue morning in Wyoming. I ate chili in 12 states. I set out to find ‘America’ in all its glory, beauty, and filth. I sought to experience it as a land, but also as a culture and as a people. I tried to get to know the occupants, understand their perspectives and personalities, biases, loves and hatred.
In all of the diverse populations and communities I have been lucky enough to interact with, one of the things that stood out most to me was the average American’s prioritization and satisfaction with the smallest of delights: the after-work beer, the frozen dinner they have waiting for them back home, the best friend they’ll get to have a chat with that night or the clean ignition of a newly-rebuilt tractor engine. Movies and music and the glamour of the media had convinced me that the youth of rural America is languishing in misery, simply counting the days until they could migrate (like me) to a metropolis. This was a stupid preconception. Not everyone wants to get out of their small town. In fact, I didn’t meet a single person who couldn’t find a nice thing to say about where they were and what they were doing, and their enthusiasm for those small but meaningful charms was palpable.
Not all want to leave, and maybe they shouldn’t. Another thing that made an impression upon me was the legitimacy, integrity, and quality of arts and culture in small towns and middle cities. Everywhere I stayed, regardless of how small, had a museum, an art gallery, a local venue, a thriving and legitimate cultural output. This is an idea that should have been obvious to me having grown up in the art and music scene of Honolulu, a city in the absolute middle of fucking nowhere. If Honolulu can produce interesting and exciting works, why should I expect anything less from Scottsdale?
My naivete in this instance—looking down on rural America—speaks to another now-verified American characteristic: the brazen and instinctual ability to be a dick. In the same way that I am (arguably) an average American and laughed at the idea of Casper, Wyoming having a hardcore punk scene, a dozen bouncers and bartenders across the nation glanced at my Hawaii Driver’s License before chuckling, ‘Guys! McLovin’s here!’ So. fuck me, I guess.
One thing that did develop on this 10-hour trek from Ohio back to my bed in Brooklyn, was the idea that if you’re doing something cool, you might not need your small town, but your small town does need you. If the painter I saw creating masterful works in a gallery window in Indiana had moved to LA as he told me he wanted to, he wouldn’t necessarily be any better a painter, and Indiana would be that much worse. If the folks who started Anna’s had decided to leave their mid-size city and open a bar in New York, they’d be just another dive off of Essex instead of the best fucking bar in New Orleans. If you’re shit at photography in Omaha and you move to New York, you’ll still be shit. If you are great at photography and move to New York, you probably won’t be that much better, and Omaha will be that much worse without you. All of this is to say, live where you’re happiest, but don’t feel the pressure that I felt, like nothing is valid unless you’re an urbanite. The city doesn’t make great people, the people make great cities.
I’ve now entered New Jersey, a state which I often describe with a joke:
Q: ‘What does New York share with New Jersey?’
A: ‘Unfortunately, a southern border.’
I’m only a state away, a mere 45 minutes from home. As excited as I may be to sleep on my own bed, I feel a strange sort of resistance. I don’t feel very at home in New York, nor, as I have just discovered, do I feel at home anywhere in the inhabited US. In the last month, I often felt as though I were intruding on a country moving and sloshing about, letting me exist within it spitefully and for a fee. However, beyond the toll booths and highways, in my tent among trees and animals more than willing to kill me for convenience, I felt a smidge closer to comfort; less like an intruder and a bit more like nature’s guest on his best behavior, my steps avoiding it’s yet-to-sprout trees and politely apologizing for burning its wood. In my tent in a forest in the dark, in the middle of a planetary beauty that existed long before I was brought to it and will continue to long after I’ve dissolved into it—whether it be in the southern swamp, the Hollywood Hills, or the Northern winterscape—I was connected to something greater than troubled humanity, untethered to the anxiety of rent and occupation, and felt a bit closer to where I ought to be, and how I’m meant to feel.
This has been a long drive, and unable to cope with the finality of anything, I offer instead, a few lists to help you out on the road. Music to listen to, things not to do, and things you can’t live without.
Do: Buy a map for a dollar in the podunk town you happen to be in, because it is likely that that town is so podunk that there won’t be any service, and it’s likely to cut out once you’re even further out in the middle of nowhere.
Don’t: Buy the navigation upgrade when renting your vehicle. If you lose service on your phone, your car won’t have any either, so why are you doubling up on a bad bet?
Do: Explore your area. Don’t just set up shop and not bother walking around your campsite. Go for a hike and see what’s around the corner. Get out of your comfort zone. The point is to see what’s over the hill, not right in front of you.
Don’t: Do something you feel sketchy about just because. I was pretty sure I could drive this legendarily dangerous mountain pass in Arizona. Turns out I couldn’t, and my car slid off a cliff (I wonder if that had something to do with the car exploding the next day).
Do: Test the free drugs you got from that exotic dancer in El Paso before popping them in your body
Don’t: Take the drugs from her in the first place
The most important things I brought with me:
1. The James Brand’s The Carter: This knife was the MVP of the trip. We put this knife through a lot of shit. We stomped it through logs to make kindling. We gripped boards with it. We cut steaks with it. We threw it at trees. We were truly sadistic in our testing of its craftsmanship, and through it all, she stayed sharp. I cannot thank The James Brand enough for equipping me with the tools necessary to survive in the heart of darkness.
2. A mini campfire grill: The grills that come on a campsite’s firepit are usually fucking disgusting, deteriorating, and more than a foot off of the base of the fire pit which is too far to get a consistent heat and sear when you need it. Also, they’re often really wide, and there’s nothing worse than having your hotdogs fall through the space in between. We recommend a 10-12 inch wide collapsible grill with adjustable heights. Lightweight, easy to clean, and great for Lil’ smokies.
3. A quality sleeping bag: The bag I brought was Big Agnes brand graded for 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest temp we experienced was 24 degrees and I was snug as a bug in there. Meanwhile, Jordan bought some Walmart bag, woke up freezing cold at 4 in the morning, and was forced to spend those crisp hours huddled around a little desperation fire. Invest in a good bag.
4. Cooler: You know what sucks? Buying a $10 cooler, packing it with $70 worth of food for the week, driving through a desert for 9 hours, getting to the campsite and discovering that the ice in the cooler melted immediately, the steaks spoiled, and water is leaking all over the trunk of your car. Invest in a cooler that stays cool.
5. A Car: I fucked up. Actually, no I didn’t, the rental place fucked up. I booked a solid vehicle, created a map based on the most eco-friendly routes given that car’s acceleration and gas consumption rate (all of which is an option when charting your course on Google Maps), and they forced me into a Ford Explorer, which ended up exploding. Then they gave me a Nissan Murano which was pretty good for gas, but not good for comfort or interface. The skip track button was on the center of the wheel instead of by my thumb. The little things add up when you’re spending hours per day skipping through your high school playlist.
And finally, the 20 songs I listened to the most.