My COVID Road Trip
By Don Wall
Comes a time to put sand under my feet When the days start feeling same old After all I still know life is sweet When I just get up and go
That’s the first verse of a new song I’m writing after a three-week road trip in mid-June during the Corona crisis and the protests after the murder of George Floyd. The road has always been an original source for information and inspiration and that hasn’t changed even though hitting the road can be intimidating these days. We drove from Dallas to Memphis the first night and upon waking we visited the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968. During my 45 year career as a journalist I’ve tried to keep my preferences out of my stories but conspiracy theories white supremacy and attacks on science and the news are threatening the very fabric of our great country and while I don’t want to offend my numerous proud redneck songwriting friends I can only say we can do better. Angel and I hit 18 states in 20 days- camping staying in hotels and visiting family. I call her Angel because she is an angel and because we stopped in Asheville, North Carolina and Hendersonville Angel’s hometown where the original white marble carving of Thomas Wolfe’s angel from his book “Look Homeward Angel” still stands.
Call it white privilege we donned our masks and joined a mid-day Black Lives Matter march in Asheville where the white police chief came out to greet the marchers peacefully after tear-gassing some of them the night before on the highway bridge. Young black leaders led the march and the protesters were largely white college students and sympathetic white people. The police chief was new and he promised action. In an extraordinary move the Asheville City Council has since voted to apologize for the role Asheville played during slavery and voted to make reparations to black residents and their descendants.
We visited Angel’s family including a trip with her dad to the family graveyard where Confederates and Yankees are buried side by side and a trip to Carl Sandburg’s farm where Angel’s great-grandfather was once the caretaker. I knew Sandburg as the Lincoln biographer and the poet who described Chicago as “City of the Big Shoulders” and how “The fog comes on little cat feet.” I didn’t know that he was also a folk singer who published “The American Songbag” in 1927 an anthology of American folk songs that Pete Seeger called “a landmark.”
Sandburg’s Music became a big part of his public appearances. Sandburg might as well have dedicated “The American Songbag” to songwriters today, “To those unknown singers–who made songs–out of love, fun, grief–and to those many other singers–who kept those songs as living things of the heart and mind–out of love, fun, grief.” Carl Sandburg also said, “Time is the coin of your life. You spend it. Do not allow others to spend it for you.” As an American songwriter on an American road trip, I was happy to be spending my coin my way. The road trip was designed to help Angel complete part of her bucket list goal of visiting every state in the United States. Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine were still on her list and being a Massachusetts Yankee living in Texas I said I’d take her to some of the northeastern colonies and even to Cape Cod my stomping grounds where my sister has a cottage where the Pilgrims first landed before sailing across Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth in 1620.
You may wonder why we hit the road when most of the country was hunkered down. Well we were healthy believed in social distancing wearing masks and staying to ourselves. Since most people were self-quarantined at home I surmised that we could self-quarantine on the road. And I knew the places we were going to visit that would normally be packed even over-crowded in mid-June heading towards Fourth of July would be empty and I was right. So, we drove all the way across North Carolina to the Outer Banks. We didn’t plan too far ahead. We made arrangements as we traveled which meant we could spend two nights camping in the dunes of Cape Hatteras instead of one. It was so worth it providing probably the most amazing starry starry night I’ve witnessed since that sparkling explosion in Cimarron, New Mexico many years ago. In the morning we thought we were taking a short path to the beach and ended up slogging 10 miles through mosquito-infested wetlands.
I love maps and one of my favorites is a U-Haul Road Atlas ©1979 which I still use. GPS works great for specific details but I like to see the overview and so we mapped out a route that went directly north along the East Coast and we just had to stop near Kitty Hawk to visit the place of the First Flight. In Norfolk, Virginia we took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Delmarva Peninsula and talked about some of the earliest European settlements including the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island and the permanent establishment of Jamestown in 1610.
We camped at Delaware Seashore State Park under the Indian River Inlet Bridge and pitched our tent in a wild wind that the Wright Brothers would have coveted. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York were Covid-19 hot spots and so we drove right on through self-isolating in the car with Angel taking the wheel across the George Washington Bridge finally hitting one of the target states Connecticut where the state song is Yankee Doodle. Then we settled for the evening in Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is well known for America’s Cup and the Vanderbilt summer “cottage” called The Breakers.
I didn’t know that Newport played a major role in the slave trade in colonial America part of the triangular trade in which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were shipped to Rhode Island and distilled into rum which was shipped to Europe and West Africa in return for enslaved people who were shipped back. We talked about how the Founding Fathers had to agree to disagree over slavery to unite and win the American Revolution. We talked about the Civil War Jim Crow voting rights and divisions that have never been squared. John Lewis was still alive. In Newport, we had dinner at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar right on the wharf. The bar had opened that night for the first time since shutdown. The tables were carefully separated the staff wore masks and we ate fantastic mussels clam chowder salad and codfish washed down with Chardonnay. We stayed in a quaint guesthouse that had seen almost no business over the past month. We saw one other guest.
On to our Cape Cod adventure we drove over the Bourne Bridge and the Cape Cod Canal onto the magical sandy scruffy piney peninsula. We stayed at my sister’s place in Hyannis and walked down to Keyes Memorial Beach and out around the Kennedy Compound along the shoreline of Nantucket Sound thinking about President Kennedy. Restaurants were only open if they could provide outside dining. Bars were closed. Normally the last two weeks of June there would be lines for restaurants ice cream parlors shops and bars. Not these days.
Our visit lasted five days and included a boat trip to Martha’s Vineyard and another day exploring my favorite place, Wing Island at the Cape Cod Natural History Museum in Brewster where we encountered an orchid in the woods a cluster of pink lady slippers.Another day we spent in Provincetown and we could see exactly where the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower around the tip of what is now Cape Cod National Seashore to anchor in Provincetown Harbor and make first landing five weeks before sailing across the bay to Plymouth. Normally flamboyant rainbow P-Town was quiet events postponed only outside cafes and a few shops open. But the Pilgrim Monument the dunes the sea and the history were all there and that’s what we wanted to experience anyways.
Watching a peach-colored sun Slipping under the sea’s green blanket Color drifts to breathe by Pilgrim’s tower against the sky Heaving time to the wind And the ocean
I worked more on my song “Cape Cod” which includes the line, “Maybe someday, I’ll go back to stay.” I feel that way about Cape Cod. I’ve lived in and loved Texas for 36 years and I still love Cape Cod. Mostly it’s the weather and I like being close to the littoral, the estuaries, the tidal flats exploding with plant and animal life, the open ocean. And I love the people working people with strong views, smart people who enjoy a good argument just like Texans. Y’all may hate the Red Sox and the Patriots but they don’t care. Same way that Texans don’t care what you think about the Cowboys or the Astros. Tribes will be tribes.
We decided to try Maine if only to check it off the list because they wanted all visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days. So we drove from the Cape up through Boston to points north with almost no traffic never once jamming the brakes none of that usual Boston back up. We drove to Ogunquit, “beautiful place by the sea,” in the Abenaki Native American language. It’s billed as New England’s best beach, 3 and one-half miles of fine sand and dunes. We joined people strolling wearing masks staying away from each other. From there we drove inland across Maine to North Conway, New Hampshire where we shopped for supplies before entering the White Mountains finding a perfect campground on the backside of Mt Washington and the Presidential chain. In cool mountain air, I played my guitar and we made a good campfire. We hiked the next day, then we drove to the top of Mt. Washington where I was able to point out the Madison Hut where three college buddies and I nearly died during a spring break hike that got windy snowy and cold really cold way below zero. Perfect weather this time.
We drove through the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and across upstate New York and spent the night at Niagara Falls. The border was closed to tourists so we couldn’t go to the Canadian side but we got a hotel room within a short walk to the American falls ate Indian food at a food truck and pretty much had the town to ourselves. After a flat tire in Lackawanna, it was smooth sailing down through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and back to Texas. My only regret is that we didn’t stop at Lincoln’s birthplace in central Kentucky. We had a long 14-hour drive back to Dallas and we just flew past the exit. It’s been bothering me and since we’ve planned another road trip to Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa I suggested to Angel that we come back to Texas by way of Kentucky once again.
And this time we will stop and visit the original Lincoln Memorial and pay our respects to the president who ended his first inaugural address by saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
There go those angels again singing a song of unity when unity seems out of reach. Lincoln really did like the song “Dixie” and he liked “Yankee Doodle” and the band played both at Lincoln’s request at a celebration at the end of the Civil War. Anyways after we complete our next road trip Alaska will be the only state left on Angel’s bucket list coinciding with the only state I haven’t visited too.