The enormous and the infinitesimal: 5,000 miles of America

 There’d been disappointments, contradictions, unwished-for news, and so we threw a metaphorical lariat across a map of our country, rented a car, and drove.

West, past farmlands, through tunnels, across bridges, into Columbus, Ohio, where, in walking the vast expanse of the Buckeye campus, we encountered the ghost of Jesse Owens, a girl at ease in a blue hammock, a wedding party tossing pale rose petals, a half-dozen young men in tie-dyed T-shirts, and, indeed, few others.

Ophelia in St. Louis

Into Terre Haute, Ind., after that, then across Illinois into St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch took on the sun above a lethargic Mississippi River and tourist helicopters stung the skies like giant mosquitoes and the City Museum was a steampunk expose of repurposed dragon wings, airplane shafts, clocks, and metal cages. The Congress of Christian Education was in town, bringing (rumor had it) gospel singers into hotel lounges for late-evening song. Ophelia told us that. Ophelia, a woman who found us on the street and sat to pose for a photograph and to tell us of her life as an insurance adjuster, a nightclub owner, a sometimes model, and a Christian.

“You’re a writer? I need a writer,” she said. “My family has some stories.”

In Joplin, Mo., I walked the streets of post-tornado replacement houses, each house slung low to the ground.

Alfred P. Murrah Memorial, Oklahoma City

In Oklahoma City, in the blaze of late-afternoon sun, I stood where the Alfred P. Murrah Building once stood, and counted the 168 chairs commemorating the Americans killed on that April day in 1995.

In Amarillo, Texas, at the Crush, we ordered sandwiches and sodas from a young waitress who spoke of growing up biracial in St. Louis, of traveling the world, of the man she’s traveling with, the man who calls her the apple of his eye.

“Nothing,” she said, in her wise and gorgeous way, “matters more than love.”

In Santa Fe, N.M., it almost stormed. In Santa Fe we met the Austin Girls Choir and followed them to the First Presbyterian Church so that we could hear them sing. In Santa Fe we met a man who flies from Louisiana to that part of the country many times a year so that he might set out into the hills to walk. He looks for peace. He stops when he finds it. “Time runs short,” he said. “I won’t live regret.”

Soon we were driving again, south through Billy the Kid country toward the purported black bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes of Ruidoso. We were walking 2,600 acres, then strapping ourselves back in that rented car and driving the wide red-brown hands of the Davis Mountains.

In Sante Fe, N.M.

We pulled to a stop in Marfa, Texas.

It was a Sunday evening. A man was riding a horse through town and jackrabbits with ears long as an old man’s slippers were jumping garden fences and a brand-new kitten was chasing me down the wide main street. A man leaned over his garden fence while his fierce dogs barked to agree with us that Marfa is the kind of place where anything might happen.

Historic Stockyards, Fort Worth

We’d gone as far west as we would go. We were turning back now, to Fort Worth, where it was Louis Kahn architecture and Will Rogers on one side of town and the Historic Stockyards and rodeo on the other, sandstone and modern glass buildings in between. In Hope, Ark., we stood on the lawn of Bill Clinton’s childhood home, wondered about that fancy Amtrak station, listened in on the proud proprietor of a burger joint called Tailgaters, who told the tale of her downtown, its hoped-for revival, a campaign for trash cans and benches. We imagined the histories of the other, mostly empty buildings washed by wait and time and rooted her, desperately, on.

In Memphis: Beale Street, proud cars, a spectacle of yoga by the Mississippi, which ran stronger here than it had by the Gateway Arch, which already seemed a lifetime ago. Men and women, young and old, clustered on the riverbanks, and held their planks and when it was all over the yoga people closed their eyes and (as they were instructed) directed love toward one another.

I closed my eyes for that moment, too.

Sunset over Mississippi, Memphis

Still in Memphis, the next day, we took a long trolley ride under a hat of even hotter sun toward the Brooks Museum of Art. There were miles of untrolley-ed streets yet to walk. We took them on, passing empty storefronts, a working tattoo joint, and a retirement home where the residents sat outside in the shade to watch the Fed Ex planes land and depart from the nearby airport.

When we reached the museum itself we were bleached and parched and grateful for the cool oasis of immaculately chosen and displayed art. We might have slept there, in that cool. We might have stayed a very long while, but Lexington, Ky., Charleston, W.Va., Cumberland, Md., and, yes, home lay ahead.

And so we kept driving those nearly 5,000 miles, that continuous reel of landscape and people. Those greened farms. Those clay-colored ponds. Those mini-dust storms. Those mesas, canyons, caverns. Those black cows like black bushes, those pecan-tree groves, those bouquets of wild flowers, those quilts of windmills, oil wells, solar panels, those smeary mirages and their trucks. Those endlessly repeating Big Box Stores, Big Brand Destinations, Big Billboard Promises: World’s Largest Gift Store, World’s Most Visited Dinner Attraction, World’s Largest Fireworks Store, America’s Sistine Chapel, World’s Biggest Casino Experience, World’s Largest Live Rattlesnake Exhibit.

We drove. We looked. We saw.

The land of America is red and cracked. It is green and lush. It is lonesome and crowded. It is the Austin Girls Choir, Blues, Elvis, Gospel, Country, Silence. It is storm clouds that release no rain and sunny skies that do. It is new glass buildings and shuttered towns, botanical gardens and buzzards greedy for the inevitable carrion. It is hills leaning into hills, falling away into flatlands, dry lands, wetlands, swollen lands, and an invisible network of caves.

It is the people who say write, the people who say love, the people who say live, the people who agree that anything might happen. It is the problems we all have — big and infinitesimal. It is us turning to each other, especially now, in the tremoring oddness of now, to name, to know, to solve.

Walking in San Patricio, N.M.

Beth Kephart is the author of 22 books, most recently the memoir guide, Tell the Truth. Make it Matter.