I’ve spent the last nineteen months living in a van, driving around the country, and looking for stories to tell. I’ve put more than 40,000 miles under my wheels, talked to hundreds of strangers, and taken many thousands of photos and videos. Yet I haven’t written anything about this trip since before last year’s presidential election.
I’ve accumulated a massive backlog of stories I want to tell, but it felt wrong to release them before I addressed the elephant in the room. It would have felt frivolous, and yet I struggled with how I wanted to tell this particular story. Then it just landed in my lap. Everything I am about to tell you is true and is presented without exaggeration.
I fired up my van (Ashley, The Beast) Friday, February 10th, after having not started it for a week or so. Within a few minutes some lights popped up on my dashboard. I was on my way to Berkeley for a last-minute passport renewal, and then I was supposed to drive to LA that night for a charity race in the morning, Stoked.org’s Trishredathon (snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing). When I got back to the van from the passport office, it wouldn’t start. I called my emergency roadside service provider but there was a long wait time, so I stood by the van holding a pair of jumper cables.
Many cars saw me, made eye contact, and then drove on. These were primarily white people, which wasn’t something I really paid any attention to until two Mexican guys in a pickup truck passed me, stopped, reversed, and asked if I needed some help. We popped our hoods, attached the cables, and the van came back to life. I shook their hands and thanked them, they said they were happy to help, and they drove off.
Not wanting to waste any time, I jumped back in the van and started to head directly to my trusted mechanic, Erik, at Precision Motors in Oakland. Google said it was only 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, five minutes was all the van could give me before it completely shut off in the middle of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way — a busy, three-lane street — just before a freeway entrance. It was 4pm on a Friday. Cars were honking. I managed to make it to the far-right lane, but it was clear that my alternator wasn’t getting power to my battery, so even my hazard lights were dimming. I stood behind the van and tried to wave people around me, holding the jumper cables again, and again calling for roadside assistance.
After a few minutes, a man driving a small Toyota Matrix pulled up and asked me if I wanted a jump. I said, sure, if he thought it was possible. He pulled his car in front of mine, but there was no way to get our two batteries close enough. So, we put my van in neutral, and together we managed to push the five-ton Beast 50 feet back until it was lined up with a driveway, which he was able to reverse into. We attached the cables, and we waited for my battery to charge we started talking.
His name is Ismail and he came from Afghanistan. He has been living in California for more than 20 years. He’s married, he has four kids, and he is a devout Muslim. While we were waiting there another Muslim man, this one from Eritrea, walked up and decided to offer his opinion about what might be wrong with the van. He waited around until the van started and stayed running and then he bid us a nice night. Ismail, however, insisted that he follow me all the way to the mechanic, just to make sure I got there safely.
Our tiny caravan took off, and again, after about five minutes the van limped to a dead stop in the middle of MLK, in an even worse position than the last time. Ismail again, pulled up along-side me, and we began coupling the batteries again.
A horn started blaring behind me. It was a young white man in his mid-to-late twenties. He shouted, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” and gave me the finger. Baffled, I gestured to my popped hood and he sped into the intersection as the light turned red, nearly hitting someone making a turn. In the car directly behind him there was a young Middle-Eastern couple. I said I was really sorry for blocking them. The woman, wearing a hijab, gave me a sympathetic look and told me not to worry. The man smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and said “Good luck!”
I know this is starting to sound like a made-up liberal fable, but I swear to you on everything I have ever loved that this is 100-percent true.
I thanked Ismail again, for the tenth time, which only seemed to embarrass him. He said, “Look at it this way: I should be grateful to you, because you gave me an opportunity to help somebody.” I was so overwhelmed by this that my throat started to tighten.
Another start, another five minutes of driving, and another breakdown. This time I managed to coast into a parking lot on 29th Street in Oakland. We were only half a mile from my mechanic, but by now it was after five, and my calls were going to voicemail. I thanked Ismail again, and said that the van would be safe there until Monday, and that I would be able to jump it later. I didn’t want to take any more of his time.
“Listen,” he said. “It is part of my religion. God commands that we help each other when we can. I can’t always help people with money or anything, but it’s a Friday afternoon, I’m finished with work, and so I have plenty of time. Let’s drive to your mechanic and see if they’re still open.”
I hopped into his car. As we drove he pointed out a mosque that he used to attend. I asked him if he was worried about what is happening in the country, especially with sentiments and policies around foreigners and immigration. He said “Well, worrying never does any good, and besides, God protects us,” but then he reconsidered. “It’s like if you were going to a national park, and there are a few bears in there. I could be eaten by a bear, and that’s okay. I’d be dead, I don’t mind. But my kids… I worry that something could happen to them, and that I wouldn’t be able to protect them.”
My mechanic (also an immigrant, incidentally, but from Switzerland) was still there and said he would wait for me. Ismail and I drove back and jumped the van one last time. This time it made it all the way into the mechanic’s bay. I ran back out to thank him again. I gave him my information and asked him to please be in touch. He wanted to know how I was getting home and he said he wanted to wait so he could drive me. It took me a solid two minutes to talk him out of it. I promised him I would be okay and I thanked him over and over. We shook hands and finally said goodbye.
In my time of need, the only people who stopped and helped me were the very people that our new administration seeks to keep out of the country. A pair of Mexicans and a Muslim from a “terror-prone” country. Without them I might have been stranded for hours, liable for who-knows-how-much in towing fees, and in real danger being hit by another car. They really rescued me today. Ismail, especially, put himself and his car in harm’s way to help a complete and total stranger. A white man in a white van. It didn’t matter who I was; he just saw that I was another person that needed help. I can’t help but think: Isn’t that the exact kind of behavior that we want to encourage? Isn’t that what we want to teach our kids? Isn’t that what the platonic ideal of a U.S. Citizen does? For the Christians out there, isn’t that what Jesus would do?
This project, Connected States, was designed to be apolitical. It was built on the premise that we have more similarities than differences, but that we’ve gotten too caught up in our political division to see it. Politicians certainly helped to seed the divide, the media exaggerated it, social media amplified it, and before we knew it we were doing it to ourselves, too. Dividing ourselves into camps. Preparing for war. Good vs Evil. Sane vs Out-of-Touch. Real Americans vs Fake.
I didn’t think that those differences were as stark as we as a country had been led to believe, and I set out to prove it with this project. When I met strangers in restaurants or bars or trains I very deliberately didn’t bring up politics. I would ask about their lives and their families. What were their favorite places they’d ever been, and to where did they most want to go? I asked for food recommendations and for tips on local beers, sights, bands, parks, and campgrounds. There were always a lot of laughs, and I found that if I was friendly and genuine and asked the right questions, people would open up no matter which state I was in, or whether I was in a big city or a minuscule town.
One of the few times I talked politics with strangers it instantly backfired. It was a good experiment, and it supported my hypothesis. I’d just pulled into Nashville, TN and had accidentally landed at a dive in the middle of nowhere called Santa’s Pub. It was a karaoke bar inside a trailer way out near the fairgrounds. I figured this couldn’t be where “it” was happening, so I decided to have a beer while I figured out where I actually wanted to go, but within just a few minutes a stranger came up to me because she liked my T-shirt (“I Hella Heart Oakland”), and she dragged me over to her table to meet her husband and their friends.
They were two married couples from Nebraska, just in for the weekend as a mini-vacation away from their kids and jobs. We spent the next two hours buying each other beers and laughing until our cheeks hurt. And then I started explaining the trip and how I was purposely not talking politics. They all thought it was a great idea. And then one of the guys couldn’t help himself and asked, “But just out of curiosity, which way do you vote?” I hesitated, but we were having an honest conversation, and besides, I wanted to see what would happen, so I cautiously admitted that I lean left. “Ah, that’s funny,” he said. “I guess we kind of lean right.”
And nothing was the same again. We remained civil. We pretended it wasn’t a big deal. But we only talked for another ten minutes or so, and the color of the conversation had changed. I could see them leaning back a bit more, looking at me through more skeptical eyes, and I realized that I was doing the same in return. Burgeoning friendship: ruptured. And for what reason? We were the same people we’d been for the last two hours of laughter and camaraderie, but now we viewed each other through different lenses.
All that is to say that I was convinced that for the majority of us this perceived great divide between us was imaginary. It was what we projected onto each other. And to some extent, I think there is still a lot of truth in that, but I realize now that I was naïve in allowing myself to believe I was seeing the whole picture.
* * * * *
Well, now that I’ve broken my own rule, I might as well break it all the way. I would like to talk to you, Trump voters, if any of you are still reading this. I offer my hand. I come in peace, truly.
I think I get it, why so many of you chose Trump. I think you felt ignored by our government, and I think you viewed Clinton as the status quo, which hadn’t been working for you, and you couldn’t imagine being swept under the rug by the system for another four years. Trump promised to change things, and I think desperation persuaded you to believe him. I don't believe that excuses voting for him, because so many of his stated intentions were always so fundamentally un-American and unconstitutional that any one of them should have been an automatic deal-breaker, but I think I understand, at least.
But here’s the thing: I get that you think our political system is broken. It is. I get that you see the growing gap between rich folks and poor folks and you feel like it’s impossible to get a leg up. The great majority of Americans agree. But what I don’t get is how you could believe that Donald J. Trump is the person to fix these problems.
Do you remember how you called Obama an elitist because he liked arugula lettuce and Dijon mustard? Well, you just elected a man who literally lives in a golden tower, who prides himself on not just being elite, but on being the most elite. This is the man you elected to take care of the working class. A man who put himself in that golden tower by exploiting the very workers he says he’s going to help. I’m sorry, but personally, I think you’ve been tricked by a legendarily shady conman. I think he took advantage of your desperation, and I think he exploited you to get into power. I promise I would love to be wrong, and only time will tell, but in the meantime, we as a nation, as a group of citizens, as Americans, need to come together if we’re going to try to make our country truly great.
The problem (or, one of the problems) is that we’re still caught up with who won the election, specifically whether it was “our” team or “theirs,” and that is counterproductive for all of us. You know how when you’re watching a basketball/football/hockey game and your team commits a foul, you kind of pretend that it didn’t happen or that the refs were being picky? Well, when politics become a team sport we turn a blind eye to the truth in just the same way. We decide that something isn’t true because we don’t want it to be true. Because it doesn’t line up with our side’s world view, or with our desires.
But that’s not how truth works. The truth is that while it seems that we are divided into two teams, in reality we are just one big group of people: Americans. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians alike should want to know about Trump’s finances and his conflicts of interest, not because it aids one team’s argument over another, but because it’s in the best interest of every single individual to make sure the government isn’t screwing them over. And the same holds true for the way we must protect our so-called American Values. Well how about this for one of our most-American values?
The poem on our Statue of Liberty reads:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those words, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, are the United States at its greatest, at its strongest. It says we are unafraid. We are brave enough to have an open door. So, tell me, how does that jive with banning the families of the men who helped me last week?
When you see your government acting against the very things your country stands for, it’s your responsibility to do something about it, regardless of whether or not you voted for that particular administration. I hear so many say they voted for Trump purely over economic reasons. Personally, I think his ideas are bad for the economy, but time will tell, so let’s focus on right now. I say that you, as someone who voted for this administration, have a greater responsibility to hold it accountable. It doesn’t matter if that means you find yourself in agreement with “the other side,” because if you see your government doing something that you know is wrong, it’s up to you to say something. As Trump’s constituents, your voice matters more. You have more power than the liberals who voted against him. It’s in his (and the others who were voted in) interest to keep you happy. And I know that many of you aren’t happy with some of his decisions already, because I’ve talked to a number of you who voted in hopes that he would help the economy, but disagree with a lot of the other things he’s doing.
And so when the administration attempts to ban Muslim immigrants and refugees from seven of the most desperate, war-torn countries, I want you to let them know that that’s not what you want, or why you voted for them. When they plan to spend countless billions of dollars on a wall that is nothing more than a symbolic gesture, I want you to tell them that’s not why you put them in office. When the president attempts to appoint a billionaire with no experience as the Secretary of Education, or a White Nationalist political advisor to the National Security Council in a role typically reserved for generals, you should be every bit as outraged as the liberals, because these foolish choices impact you every bit as much. When he puts a gag-order on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) you are just as at risk as Democrats. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water.
* * * * *
I’ve harped on this point a lot in these stories I’ve been telling from the road, but I’m going to repeat it because this truth keeps revealing itself to me over and over again: Our commonalities outweigh our differences by a massive margin. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking to a white born-again Christian at an evangelical church in Texas or a brown Muslim at a Bangladeshi wedding in Michigan. We all want prosperity and opportunity. We want health and safety for our kids. We all want the United States to be great, to be a beacon, and to light the way for the rest of the world in freedom, in justice, and in the way we treat our people.
If we are going to achieve that we need to come together and look out not just for our own, but for each other as well. That was the lesson I saw so clearly again the other day, when strangers went out of their way to help me, a person who looked and talked differently from them. A person who, for all they knew, may have voted to keep their families out of the country. They put humanity first, and that is America at its greatest.
* * * * *