When I quit my job as a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, my mentor and friend, Roger Ebert, was horrified at first.
But then I reminded him of a bit of advice he’d given me just after I arrived in the Features Department. He’d warned me not to be a journalist for more than five years. The power and privilege would eventually harden my heart and narrow my mind, he said.
That was the exact opposite of what I expected from journalism. And he disproved his own theory, of course, becoming more and more compassionate and adventurous as the years passed.
He also remained one of my dearest and most supportive friends almost right up to the day cancer took him. Our last email exchange was a few days before his death. He was teaching me how to endure a battle similar to the one he knew he was about to lose.
One of the most remarkable “cheer up” stories he shared was that the sound of my laughter — we’d sat desk-to-desk, up close and personal — had made him want to quit drinking back in our Sun Times days. He’d yearned to feel as young and joyful as I sounded.
That’s when I discovered the real reason he hadn’t wanted me to leave. But I also remembered that when I’d reminded him of his own advice, he nodded and said, “Ah. Lifestyle change. That’s good. That’s okay…”
And that from then on, when someone teased me about my decision, he would say he thought it was brave. Necessary. Wise, even.
I have to admit, I wasn’t nearly as sure as he was. But the then love of my life had landed a very good job out west at a time when the Sun Times was in turmoil after the demise of the afternoon newspaper and the inevitable firing and fighting caused by such catastrophes.
I had an easy out. So we hit the road, determined to meander across the country slowly, detouring at will on our way to the wild southwest.
We wanted to see America. Not the cities everyone knows about, but that “fly over” America you didn’t see on TV or read about in papers like the Sun Times.
And as the song title boasts, America is beautiful. I’ve been to other countries, lovely countries, but the majesty of ours — that’s exactly the right word — cannot be bested. Especially once you’re out away from cities entirely. In those wild open spaces where Mother Earth reminds you who is really “boss.”
I grew up in a city where you have to do a little work to glimpse a sizable patch of sky. I walked along the lake front from the Sun Times to my apartment as often as possible as a youngster. Perhaps heeding a yearning for the country life my ancestors left behind during the Great Black Migration up from the South.
On our move west, in the tiny towns near the power plants where my beloved engineer toiled by day, I met people with worldviews chastened and informed by encounters with forces beyond their control. Not just spiritual but physical, natural forces. And not just once in a while, but almost daily.
In one Arizona town, the “streets” turned to clay red, rushing rivers when it rained — no drainage. If you needed to go somewhere, you had to wait for the water to recede. No need to call anyone. Everyone knew why you were late.
Some close encounters were more humble but still deadly. The scorpion in the shower. The rattler under the car. The dirt road that had a big old, sedan-sized hole in it and no sign up to tell you that — just after I arrived in Tucson, two people drowned that way.
Car fell down into a deep hole with water at the bottom. There’d been a big monsoon season rain and the ground just gave way some time before the two people who drowned decided to take a rural road instead of I-10.
Everyone we met had stories about tornadoes and sand and thunderstorms that “damned near killed us all,” too. The first time I read, and then watched the better-than-you-think Billy Bob Thornton adaptation of All the Pretty Horses, I felt like I knew that “little son of a bitch” who tried to out ride a lightning storm because he was “born death by fire.”
I’d met a few like him a few times, out there on the back roads. I’d met a few like the hero of that tale, John Grady Cole, too. Blue-eyed, bow legged ranch boys as tough as hide and tender as a butterfly kiss.
Everybody I met out here was a dichotomy like that. Fascinating like that. And they all seemed to know my world ‘way better than I did somehow. And to prefer theirs because they knew it.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised, really. My grandmother, who lived her whole life on a farm in the Mississippi Delta, once said she didn’t need to see a city because the earth and animals had taught her all she needed to know about life. Later, my Hopi mother-in-law, who lived her entire life on the Arizona reservation where I lived for over 8 years after the big move, became the only other person I ever met who knew even more about life than Delta Granny did.
And you must remember that as a reporter I’d met almost every celebrity there was at the time. And a goodly number of politicians, poets, pundits and such —supped with the future king of England, too, as a matter of fact. People we think just have and know it all.
But none of them, with the possible exceptions of David Bowie and Robert Redford, had been as innately wise and “purpose-full” as a lot of the folks I met on our way across.
It’s probably no coincidence that both of the latter often walked away from fame at will without batting an eye. One to raise his children, another to raise the bar in film making as far from Hollywood as possible.
In fact, Redford used to show up on Hopi to see godchildren. Hopi ones. Unannounced. Unassuming. Camping out, not expecting to be cared for.
He made himself scarce. And useful. That’s that purposeful thing I’m talking about. That thing the “fly over” people understand so well that Redford probably picked up from living in rural Utah and New Mexico for so long.
I don’t know where Bowie got it. Mars, probably. That’s kind of a desert, too, right?
You don’t get a lot of existential angst from most “fly over” folks. Even if they feel it, they do something practical with it, for the most part. Or feel like it’s just the price we pay for living.
What they don’t understand they’ll live into, as Rilke once counseled a young friend to do. And if they don’t…they don’t. You just live, then. Period.
So I met big, doughy women on the prairie who made the best apple pie you ever tasted out of horror shows a lot of city women wouldn’t have survived. Served up with smiles as sweet as those slices.
I met big old biker dudes I thought might cut me just for being brown but who loved James Brown more than I did, and had Kerouac in their back pockets.
And Black cowboys who’d never seen a ghetto. Or lived in a town that had more than just their own Black family in it. And weren’t scared. Or mad. Or as confused as I wanted them to be. Except about why I wanted them to be.
Because the white people they knew thought Black people were “hard working, highly intelligent people.” They told me how Black folks, Black folks better educated than the white ones “out our way,” had built their first hotels and restaurants. Which is how the towns got started in the first place.
I heard this first, BTW, after wondering aloud why the homecoming king and queen and the student government president, etc., in a mostly white town, were all Black that year.
I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.
Later, I would encounter white dudes with Confederate flags on their bumpers who wanted to dance with me at the only little bar in town. Asked my white boyfriend first, too. And invited me and said boyfriend to Sunday dinner “over to the house.”
I’m not saying they were all angels. The guys like that in first little town we lived in were famous for beating up the Navajos who worked at the power plant and snatching their hard-earned pay out of their back pockets on Friday nights. And blowing gas station Coke machines full of buckshot when the machines didn’t give them their change or the Coke they’d paid for.
So there’s that, too. Oh, yeah. Only white men I’m dead sure I could drop off on the meanest streets of Chicago and not be worried about one bit.
They’d probably get into a heap o’ trouble for calling some Black guy out of his name sooner or later. But a when they got back home, they’d still beat down another white guy for “botherin’” me, too.
They kept shape shifting on me all the time. Nobody was ever who I thought they’d be. And that’s the thing.
Everything I thought I knew about most of America was wrong.
And that’s why I cringe — and also laugh a lot — when I watch cable and network news. Read big city newspapers and magazines.
Damned near everything they say gets “read” differently by people out this way than they think. And tells us they not only don’t understand us, but also don’t really want to. Or maybe just can’t.
Ebert was right, you see. We live in a rarefied world, journalists. Yes, some brave souls head right into the fray, flak jackets and all. But that’s a tiny percentage — those fearless VICE News dare devils? God bless them, every one.
But save for Anderson Cooper and a couple others, most of the talking heads we see on cable and network news each day, the names we read most often in our favorite print publications, don’t get out much. And when they do they’re babysat and get to go home after they’ve made deadline or read the prompters for a couple of hours.
So, yes, the paper sent me to the scene of the crash sometimes. Or sent me to spar with the sharpest minds in politics or the arts. But I also got all-access backstage passes to concerts and other enviable events, and often rode in the limo with the politicians or performers. Noshing on free champagne and mad munchies.
That Eagles song? Life in the Fast Lane? True. Before you know it, you’re pretty damned spoiled. And cynical.
I mean, my daughter’s unofficial “godfather” is a bona fide, 70s era rock star, for Chrissake. I’m still partying with the band. They have to have something to do when they’re out here.
But back when, I flew over the small towns I would later live in nursing a drink and rewriting my latest masterpiece. Blissfully unaware of how hollow my words would ring in the minds of my future neighbors.
I could tell you what all the stars were doing/wearing/drinking, but I didn’t know a damned thing about all those millions of people in the middle of my very own country. Neither did anybody else I spent quality time with.
Which is partly why some of those millions did what they did on election day last year. Swear to God. I’m sure of it. Just tired of being ignored.
It’s partly that mean streak I was talking about, too. That dangerous dark side you don’t want to mess with too much. And that you ignore at your own peril.
It’s out of the bottle now, that genie, I guess. And the media that ignored them is all butt hurt that they didn’t see it coming. And can’t figure out why “they” did it.
I can. One clue is how the media calls people in our part of the country “them” and not “us.” And “they” know it.
There used to be reporters hired to travel the “heartland.” Charles Kuralt was my favorite: CBS, On the Road. He kept us mindful of that “other America.” Until we decided it was too hokey or something. I don’t know what the excuse was.
But I’ve lived in that “other” America for over 25 years now. And learned that it is worth knowing. And talking to. And thinking about before, during and after the camera light goes on or the deadline passes.
The people out here are not simple — their worlds are very complex. And when they roared last year, it knocked us arse over teakettle. And we’re still upside down.
What you don’t know can hurt you. But pain teaches. They know that, too, out this way. We all do, actually.
Maybe we can learn to lean on one another while we’re healing.
This post first appeared on Medium.