“We the people…”
If all goes as planned, by the time we get home this weekend, my husband and I will have driven more than 6,000 miles on our cross-country, monthlong road trip.
The experience has been glorious.
The natural beauty of the U.S. does not disappoint. Even still, as much as we’ve appreciated incredible and notable places and countless nameless fields, the places are not what will stay with me the most.
Even in these complicated times, this trip has gone a long way toward restoring my hope for this land and its people. Contrary to so much news of the week, I feel more encouraged than I’ve felt in years — my hope is tangled in the beauty of places like the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Glacier National Park, the places in between and the people we’ve encountered, 6 feet apart, along the way.
Our last pit stop for this trek is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, a world-class museum. I encourage everyone to make a trip. It’s worth the effort. The first art one sees when entering the first gallery is an 8-foot-high, 27-foot-long wall sculpture made of thousands of shoestrings that clearly reads “We the People.”
As we approach the last leg of this epic journey, I’m feeling melancholy about this trip and our country in general. The visit to Crystal Bridges’ collection of American art was a powerful lens to examine where we’ve been and where we are — on this trip and as a country.
We’ve seen some of the places we’ve been many times before — others we had never seen. We’ve remembered things we forgot. We’ve learned things we never knew. We’ve also relearned parts of history we studied long ago, with new details, sometimes coming from a different perspective than my eighth-grade American history textbook.
Though there is still much to learn, being there and hearing more perspectives gave us a better understanding of places, people and things.
Places have stories.
On this trip, we passed some of the most beautiful fields I’ve ever seen — fields dotted with giant bales of hay, fields that looked like patches in giant quilts my grandmother could have made. We also saw hundreds of beautiful barns, bigger and often redder and more interesting structurally than it made sense for them to be.
I couldn’t help but think about the nameless-to-me people who built those barns years ago and the people who baled the hay earlier that day. All of the places have stories from the perspectives of every person who has ever been there. The major, mediocre and mundane moments of those places are stitched together, and the stories of a thousand souls weave a complicated tapestry.
History is messy. Grasping the whole story is a struggle.
In certain moments of this trip, I felt like I could almost feel the memories of a place — like when we stopped in Montana at the site of The Battle at Little Bighorn. I felt like the things that happened there took hold of the place and still permeate the air above that holy ground.
Building on that feeling, at Crystal Bridges, one of the exhibits is titled “The Myth of the Frontier.” Having just traveled to many of the places pictured in the paintings leading up to Manifest Destiny, I was able to connect dots that had been there all along, but I had not connected before.
It wasn’t a frontier.
People were already there.
Along the journey, I’ve taken photographs galore, many of them focused on exaggerating the play of sunshine and shadows. At Crystal Bridges, I read about 19th century artists who did the same. According to a placard about George Inness’ painting titled, Sunset on the River (1867), his work was a demonstration that “The artist hoped that, by showing the drama and dynamism of nature, his paintings would transport viewers to a higher emotional or mental plane.”
Natural beauty has the power to do just that.
In one of the museum’s exhibits describing the period in America between 1860-1900, the years after the Civil War, I read a placard that said, “Amidst rapid change, some artists looked to the past and reflected the national longing for a time when the world seemed a simpler place.”
Manifest destined to repeat itself?
What can we, the people, do to shift focus from the divisiveness permeating relationships and interactions and working to destroy so much that so many people worked so long to build?