December 2, 2001
North Topsail Beach, NC.
I started this journey looking out at the Pacific
Ocean. I hopped in my truck and drove a little over a mile down
to the beach. The Pacific is my ocean. It means I am home. An hour
ago, I sat breathing into the teeth of a bitter, lonely wind on
a dune in North Carolina and watched the breakers hit the Eastern
edge of the country.
From Sea to Shining Sea.
At the half way point, in time if not quite there in distance,
on this Quixotic quest I huddle tonight in my tent in the hauntingly
empty Surf City Campground. The season is over, the warmth left
south in the sister Carolina. Nothing here but me and the wind and
the cold and the boxy hulks of faux Victorians abandoned for the
It is a baptism by battery power for my new laptop. In Birmingham
a few days back I discovered that the computing machine I started
this trip with had an advanced terminal disease. She died peacefully.
I sit here bathed in the light of the screen and listen to the
wind rattle my tent and the insistent roar of the ocean just beyond
the dunes. Seabirds of some sort scream angrily outside the tent,
ticked off that I didnt read the part of the contract requiring
me to discard bread for their use. Angry, angry birds.
Still haunted by an intimidating woman with an intimidating rasp
in her voice and an intimidating granite face, all asking her intimidating
What do you believe in?
I think about the words of an eight
year old Mexican kid on the other coast. I think about two
homeless guys in a park in Tucson and their little flags flapping
proudly from their shopping carts. I think about two soldiers
on a gate at Fort Huachuca and their color blind devotion to
each other. I think about an old
man in El Paso smiling proudly at his mixed blood grandchildren.
I recall the kindness of a cutthroat
hooker in Vegas and the excited joy with which a young Latina
hopped up and down just thinking about when she would finally be
a citizen and could vote for President, Governor, Congress,
Ill even vote for what color to make the
street signs if theyll let me. I will take my children out
of school so they can come with me to vote so they will know how
important it is.
I remember the odd, cold war in Kanab between members of the church
of Latter Day Saints and the recently arrived non-believers. I remember
that they agree on one thing
wave the flag for all youre
I think of the searing red sandstone of the Canyon Country of Utah,
the gentle Vermillion of the Grand Canyon, and the high desert loneliness
of Arizona and New Mexico and wonder where else I could lose myself
in so much magic.
I conjure up, here in the cold, the faces of two little angels.
Young girls with diabetes, one from a family with wealth, one from
a family without. I think about the sacrifices and changes borne
by the families, the jolting fear of the little girls when their
bodies betray them, and in both cases, on opposite ends of the country,
in completely different circumstances, the rare and moving courage
of the mothers. Molly and Elizabeth
one poor and plain, one
wealthy, regal, and beautiful, both quietly determined to kick the
shit out of this beast that has grabbed their daughters.
I think about an ex-serviceman in Tulsa absolutely infuriated at
anti-war protesters. Youre over there with people trying
to kill you and youre doing it for these people and you start
thinking what the hell am I doing this for if they think I suck
so bad? I remember the words of an ex-serviceman in Birmingham
who thinks the opposite
I knew that I was willing to
die to protect their right to protest, that I was willing to die
to protect their right to protest.
I remember a newly minted American
telling me that freedom makes it easier to breathe.
I remember some old Armenians
who knew more about this place I call home than I had ever bothered
I think about a bunch of scared people across the entire spectrum
of colors who think we need to kick them all out and take
our country back.
Close the door, Im on the bus already.
I think of a high school football game in Midland that everyone,
participants and spectators, took far too seriously. For three hours
we all got to take a silly game far too seriously and not take so
seriously a bunch of crumpled steel and concrete in New York.
But only for three hours.
I think of a terrified young woman in St. George, UT. who swears
she is not afraid but wont open her mail.
I think of a woman in Alabama
wrestling with the man she loves now and the ghost of the man she
loved before him. I think of a cop who just wants to do some good.
I think of a classroom in South Carolina filled to overflowing
with twenty year old see how much I dont give a damn and one
young man, a soldier, quietly resolved to put his life on the line
for them anyway. The idea is bigger than any one of us and
its worth fighting for, he said
worth fighting for those who cant, those who wont, and
those who dont even get that you are fighting for them.
I think of a little girl with a teddy
bear she wants to give to another little girl whose father wont
ever come home. From the World Trade Center.
I remember the words of a retired military officer who told me,
Look, I think we have to fight this war but remember that
the only good war is the one where no one shows up
where we as a species figure out that this is foolish. Im
not holding my breath but it sure would be something, wouldnt
I find it oddly comforting that every ex-military person with whom
I have spoken have suggested the same thing when asked what one
could do to help, on a personal level, the people fighting for us
Write a letter.
I find it absolutely maddening that I cannot figure out how to
do something so simple.
I think about all the self-possessed twenty and thirty somethings
in Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Birmingham, and Charleston who
only think of their wallets. Who think that we have to fight this
war so lets go get those people, whoever they are, to go fight
and finish it quickly because this whole economic uncertainty
thing is really putting a crimp in their plans.
I think about a young woman in a post office carrying two young
children and pushing a huge box with her feet. A box filled with
mundane contents. A box going overseas to a military base for a
husband she might not see again. I remember thinking someone should
help her and feeling embarrassed when someone else did it before
What do I believe in?
The cowardly beauty of going around the country asking the questions
is that I dont have to have any answers.
I think about a bunch of old, dead, white guys who cranked out
a piece of paper that gave me gifts, as a birthright, that I cannot
fully appreciate. I think that it is a testament to how well that
old yellow piece of paper works that I cannot conceive of what it
means to be anything less than free.
I know these things are important. I know I believe in the ideas
of America and the people that make those ideas into a shifting,
Mostly, though, what I believe in is all the way across the country
in a little cracker-box house not far from the right ocean while
I huddle here a stones throw from the wrong one.
Gary Snyder wrote something once that said what you need to do
is find something to call your own and then dig in and defend it.
Maybe the issue of what it means to be and American is too big,
too broad, too much to put into words or into concrete thought.
Maybe I am no different than the many I have met who cannot define
what it is and can only think of it in terms of what is wrong and
what is right in our own lives. Maybe there is an instrument, a
substitute for the eloquence of Jefferson or Jay or Madison or Hamilton,
and that instrument is human and tangible.
Leave philosophy to the philosophers.
Mostly what I believe in is the magic of every day with her, the
music of her voice, the poem of every motion and sound she makes,
and the prayer never far from my lips. She is what I will dig in
and defend. That life. That dream. I am developing an appreciation
for what it means to be an American. For what it means now and what
it has meant down through the tunnels of time.
Mostly though, what I believe in is a woman. Mostly, what I believe
in is Zoe.