When my mother’s worsening health recently made it necessary for my parents to relocate from the Washington D.C. area, where they had lived for over three decades, to be near me in Tucson, Arizona, I volunteered to drive both their cars across the country. Had I been able to take my time, exploring back roads and talking with strangers along the way, the trips would have been a pleasure. I don’t mind driving long distances, particularly when new experiences are part of the bargain.
Unfortunately, I ended up having to make both trips — the first in October and the second in December — far too rapidly, because of professional and personal responsibilities. Each one ended up taking me about three-and-a-half days. I would drive until I started to feel my attention wane, then pull over at a rest area or, if there wasn’t one close enough, the parking lot of some twenty-four-hour establishment. There I would close my eyes, still buckled up behind the wheel, and wait until my batteries had recharged sufficiently to make me stir uncomfortably in my seat. Then I’d head back out on the road and drive another four, six or even eight hours before my next brief nap.
While this approach proved efficient from the perspective of both time and money, it left me little opportunity to see the country I was passing through. Interstate highways in the southeastern portion of the United States tend to be frighteningly monotonous. During the long rural stretches between cities — the American South remains primarily agricultural — trees usually obscure the view. While the idea may be to eliminate potential distractions, the absence of anything worth seeing has a counterproductive soporific effect.
Stronger than a sleeping pill
Stops for gas or food sometimes provide a respite. Even there, though, stimulating sights are few and far between. Every time I pulled off the freeway, I would scan the landscape, desperate to locate anything to capture my interest. But finds were rare. Aside from the occasional “A-ha!” moment, in which some political or cultural reference was suddenly made clear, there just wasn’t much for traction for my mind.
I am trying to break your heart
Cities, when they came, were marginally better. I found myself braving the traffic through the heart of each one, rather than taking the time-saving bypasses around them, just because I wanted to take in sights with specific character. But your average mid-sized American city has little in common with metropolises like New York or Chicago. There is plenty of congestion and the odd skyscraper, certainly, yet very little that stands out enough to remember afterwards.
Variations on a tedious theme
Before I left on the first cross-country drive, I thought hard about which portions of the journey I wanted to make in daylight. Once I’d been on the road for a few hours, though, I realized that it rarely mattered. Whether I was passing through Richmond, Virginia by night or Charlotte, North Carolina in the middle of the day, the impression left was startlingly similar. Or, to be more precise, the lack of impression. Even places that I’d long wanted to visit were rendered visually antiseptic by the logic of the superhighway.
As I was preparing for my second trip in December, I vowed to do things differently. Even though I knew I’d be facing the same time pressures as I had in October, I still had visions of darting off the interstates periodically to experience life away from their regimented sameness. I was going to force myself to eat at local places. I was going to try to rekindle my passion for photography by seeking out shots of rural Americana. I was going to be the sort of tourist I’d always wanted to be.
But my ambitions proved depressingly unrealistic. Because I needed to file grades for the courses I had been teaching back in Arizona, I had to spend valuable daylight hours sitting in a Starbucks in North Carolina. And by opting to see an old friend in Raleigh for lunch, I had sacrificed even more of the time I could have used for aesthetically satisfying detours. When I later stumbled, during a stop for gas, upon an “alternative” strip mall outside of Greenville, South Carolina with a comic book shop, tattoo parlor and decent-sized used record store, it was already nearing midnight. I looked in the windows, but that was all I could do.
While there were mitigating circumstances that made it especially hard for me to realize my touristic ambitions, I eventually realized that getting off the beaten track just isn’t as easy as it used to be. At one point, I stopped for breakfast in Alabama. I would have loved the opportunity to indulge in some down-home cooking. But all I could see were shopping malls. Aside from the accents, I could have been in any American suburb.
After much consternation, I decided to eat at Panera Bread Company, a chain with absolutely no Southern character. Their food isn’t particularly good, either, though it beats McDonald’s and convenience-store snacks. The reason I chose Panera, though, was that it was the first place I could find that promised both breakfast and free internet access. If I couldn’t locate the “real” America I’d fantasized about seeing, I reasoned, I could at least gnaw on a breakfast bagel while posting an entry to my blog about my failure to be the sort of tourist I’d wanted to be.
My saving grace on both cross-country drives was the only place I spent the night: New Orleans. My friend Damon had graciously offered to put me up in his home there. I had fond memories of that distinctive city from my two previous visits: a childhood vacation back in 1978, during which I’d had my first thrilling glimpses of the decadent life and my honeymoon in 1996, during which my partner and I had briefly attempted to simulate it. After the austerity measures imposed by my long hours in the driver’s seat, I was eager to let go for a spell.
But I was also curious to see what had become of New Orleans in the five-plus years since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Like a lot of people, I am simultaneously compelled and repulsed by disaster sites. I was reluctant to return to New York City after September 11th, 2001 because I didn’t want to see a place I’d visited so many times in my youth radically transformed. When my sister relocated her wedding there back in 2004, I was deeply upset. Yet that didn’t stop me from staring intently out across the industrial landscape of New Jersey on the drive up, desperate to record the absence of those familiar twin silhouettes.
Something similar was at work as I approached New Orleans on my October trip. I was afraid to look. But I had to look. Much to my surprise, I found that almost all the places I remembered from my previous visits were still in good shape. If anything, those portions of New Orleans, not all of which were touristy, actually looked better than they had on my honeymoon fourteen years before.
Initially, this discovery was a huge relief. The more I let its impact sink in, however, the more I realized that part of me was troubled. Because I knew that the hardest-hit portions of the city were still in ruins, it felt awkward to be rejoicing at the survival of my highly subjective — and superficial — New Orleans. The disaster wasn’t something to paint and party over. I wanted there to be more overt acknowledgment of what had happened and for it to be readily accessible for visitors like me. In short, I had a powerful craving for ruins.
Instead of going to college straight out of high school back in 1986, I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student. The land from which most of my ancestors had come proved considerably more appealing to me than I’d imagined before going. But it also freaked me out. Once I realized that most of the larger cities I visited there had practically been rebuilt from scratch after World War II, I became obsessed with distinguishing between the few structures that could still claim an authentic patina of history and those that felt — to me, anyway — functionally the same as the “European” villages in American amusement parks like the EPCOT Center and The Old Country at Busch Gardens.
When all the exchange students from my organization Youth For Understanding took a multi-day field trip to Berlin in February of 1987, one of the highlights was an afternoon in the city’s Eastern half. The chance to marvel at the gray ordinariness of Communist society more than made up for the tedium of waiting in line for the privilege. Still, I found the experience rather disturbing.
I was as intrigued as the other Western students by the strange “mirror world” we encountered there. But I also felt sheepish that my companions were mocking the East for its ugly goods and unattractive people. Whether it was because of my nascent political sympathies or just the realization that I had grown up wearing not-quite-good-enough brands myself, I was more inclined to note the ways that Communist everyday life was like my own than to remark its eccentricities.
That’s why I soon left the group I’d crossed over with to strike out on my own, camera and tripod in tow. Soon, I found a much more compelling sight than imitation 501s or Eastern Bloc rock albums. Unlike every West German city I’d visited, Communist Berlin was still studded with rubble from the war. While some tourist attractions had been restored, much of the central city looked like a set from a Hollywood movie about the Berlin Airlift. I rapidly overcame my fear of taking photographs outside of tourist attractions and began trying to capture my impressions of a life interrupted.
Finding ruins there didn’t require the complicated mental exercise of overlaying post-bombing photographs over a contemporary view of the cityscape. Far from having been erased, visible reminders of the destruction were so prominent in East Berlin that they seemed like a point of pride, a strange modern-day analogy to the splendors of Ancient Rome. And that comforted me somehow.
So did the Berlin Wall. I loved its brightly colored Western side, a powerful testament to freedom of expression. But I also took solace in the Wall’s less attractive aspects. The void presided over by the watchtowers in the East, the way it looked like a scar bisecting the city from above, the stark contrast between the buildings on its two sides: all were powerful reminders that history can’t be wished away.
Holidays where the sun don’t shine
As I pondered my reaction to New Orleans during my first cross-country drive, I realized that I’d been hoping for an experience akin to my day trip to East Berlin twenty-three years before. Intellectually, I understood why the neighborhoods I visited had escaped Katrina relatively unscathed. Emotionally, I had to see something other than a testament to good fortune and resilience. It wasn’t enough to acknowledge the city’s losses. I wanted them inscribed on the landscape.
If I’d had more time, I could have crossed the metaphoric wall dividing the seemingly unscathed French Quarter from the city’s devastated Ninth Ward. And I probably would have. I remembered my partner and I being ferried through that part of town by the limousine driver who had picked us up at the airport back in 1996. “This is a bad place,” he laconically declared. “Stay away.” At the time, as I stared out the window at the sort of street-corner sights I’d grown up with in Washington D.C., I remembered thinking that his warning had actually piqued my interest.
The call to reconnect
That first night, my partner and I thumbed through our restaurant guide to pick out a good soul food place. The one we decided on, the Praline Connection, was only a few blocks from the Quarter. But when we asked for directions at our hotel, the desk agent insisted that it would be too dangerous to walk there by ourselves at night. We disregarded this advice. Both of us had spent enough time navigating downtrodden neighborhoods to have a pretty good sense of what was truly dangerous and how to avoid it. Still, the impression that the French Quarter was under siege from the poverty and crime surrounding it was hard to shake off.
How ironic, then, that fourteen years later it had seemingly grown safer because of Hurricane Katrina. Now the walk to the Praline Connection was interspersed with eateries and nightclubs. Lots of visitors were on the street both day and night, unlike in 1996, when my partner and I had made the short trip without seeing any other pedestrians.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the ruins I felt a compulsion to see weren’t just the result of a natural disaster, but a monument to the social and political failures that had made it so bad in the first place. The history I wanted to see acknowledged was much longer in duration than the five years that had passed since Katrina.
As I was making my second cross-country drive in December, I found myself a few hours shy of New Orleans trying to make sense of this outwardly perverse desire. And then, as I was halfway through Mississippi on Interstate 10, I saw the enigmatically minimal sign: “Beaches.” I hadn’t made a single detour so far on the trip. And I wouldn’t make another. But something compelled me to get off the freeway and meander miles on rutted back roads to see the Gulf of Mexico.
As I struggled to recalibrate my driving style to the rough road surface and low speed limits, I thought it was simply the call of the sea drawing me off course. After over twenty-four hours of landlocked purgatory, after living for over a decade hundreds of miles farther from the shore than I ever wanted to, how could I resist a little sea and sand? And I was certainly delighted when the shoreline horizon came into view.
It’s hard to argue with the sea
But once I had parked my parents’ car and stepped out to take a look around, I realized that it wasn’t just the beach that had lured me off the freeway. All around me were traces of the vacation homes that had stood there before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Here was a legacy of destruction immediately apparent to even the most casual observer.
Although New Orleans had received most of the media attention, its problems were the result of breached levees. Indeed, in the hours after Katrina made landfall, there were plenty of stories about how the city’s astonishing good luck had once again held. Damage from the storm’s initial passing by wasn’t that bad.
The part of Mississippi I was in, by contrast, had sustained a direct hit from the Hurricane’s powerful winds and huge storm surge. In some places along the state’s Gulf Coast, few structures were left standing. As I wandered among the foundations left behind after the storm, I felt like a visitor to the ruins of Pompeii, exploring a settlement so thoroughly erased that rebuilding it seemed pointless.
There were hopeful signs amid the wreckage. Many of the big live oak trees along the shore had weathered the storm, bending with the winds that broke the homes apart. And the Gulf of Mexico, despite the terrible oil spill of 2010 that no one was able to contain, still projected a sense of indomitable nature, surviving in spite of all we had done to it.
But what lifted my spirits the most was the way that these ruins bore witness, like that rubble I saw in East Berlin, to the fact that history is not so easily forgotten. Here, finally, was a landscape that couldn’t lie.
That’s when it hit me. All this time I had been thinking of these trips from the perspective of a tourist. But the insouciance of the outsider, the person who gets to take in the sights without being taken in by them, was not my lot. Not only had I been making these drives under a great deal of immediate pressure — having to get back quickly, worried about how my parents were managing — I had also been using them to distract myself from a profound personal crisis.
Part of the reason that I’d been relived to find “my” New Orleans intact during that first trip in October was that I was burdening the city with tremendous significance. The marriage that had seen its first happy days there was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, it had been in deep trouble since that summer of Hurricane Katrina.
On our honeymoon, my partner and I had made a plan to visit New Orleans every five years as a way of renewing our bond. But our first half-decade of married life culminated in the frightening aftermath of 9/11. And the second one came to an end on the heels of some painfully public troubles and the worst professional year of my life. From my selfish perspective, the devastation wrought by Katrina seemed like the perfect metaphor for the disintegration of our life together.
When I realized that the places my partner and I would have visited together were still alive and well, I convinced myself that this was a powerful omen for our future as a couple. I made my way to the Praline Connection to buy some of its namesake pecan candies to bring back to Tucson for her.
And I even managed to find a store selling leather masks by the same artisan who had crafted the two that she and I had purchased on our honeymoon. Since our daughter had been born on our second wedding anniversary, I figured that getting her a matching mask would be the perfect way of symbolically renewing our vows.
Self-reflexivity is a masked ball
As soon as I got back home, however, it became apparent just how thoroughly I’d been deluding myself. I expected my partner to understand that I had made a pilgrimage with her in mind. But aside from giving her the pralines and our daughter the leather mask, I did nothing to communicate the depths of my feelings. Our reconciliation had been my private fantasy.
I was terribly upset. How could I have been so foolish? I had built a wedding cake out of sand only to watch the tide sweep it away as if it had never existed. Nevertheless, in my more lucid moments I was able to recognize where fantasy and reality had diverged. My partner had never even hinted at the sort of Hollywood-ending of a reconciliation that I had been hoping for. All she had promised was that we would continue to act as a family for our daughter’s sake. Anything more was pure fabrication on my part.
That’s why those vacant lots on the Mississippi coast affected me so deeply. It was clear that whatever structures had been there were never going to be rebuilt. Yet the simple fact that the space was for sale communicated the hope that something new could be constructed in their stead.
The dream of a new start
The destruction may have been depressing. But going to witness it was more than a melancholy undertaking. I needed to see my own devastation mirrored in the landscape. At the same time, I had to stop thinking of it as a permanent condition. Ruins may seem perfect as they are to the tourist. For the person who has to live with them, though, it’s far better to perceive them as imperfect, every bit as a mutable as the structures that preceded them.
There’s a scene in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire in which the blind poet figure muses on the Potsdamer Platz, once the heart of modern Berlin, but functionally eliminated by the Berlin Wall. It is strange, he thinks, that so much life could give way to emptiness. Were he to return there today, however, he would confront the opposite prospect. The Potsdamer Platz is once again the heart of modern Berlin. And it’s the Berlin Wall and the void it fashioned that have disappeared from view.
Part of me still wishes that they had left the Wall where it was, just as I want those empty lots in Mississippi to stay empty. Part of me wants to treat the ruins of my marriage as a personal tourist site, a place to reflect on what has been lost without having to contemplate what could take its place. But I’m coming to understand that the only way I will ever make progress towards a happier future is if I learn to see ruins, not as the end, but as a means. I have to liberate them from my mental museum and turn them into the raw material for construction projects of the spirit.
All photographs are © Charlie Bertsch and may not be reproduced elsewhere without his permission.