Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's not where you're from...

I fell asleep listening to my ipod. When I woke up at 4:00 a.m., Mos Def’s song ‘Habitat’ was playing “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” 

I contemplated going back to sleep, but decided to take this opportunity to share my thoughts. I am out searching for America. This land is my home; it is all that I have really known. I have traveled to different parts of the world, but I call the United States my home.

I am somewhere in North Dakota at the moment. Yesterday, I was in South Dakota and Nebraska. The day’s itinerary was as follows:

Mt. Rushmore
Crazy Horse
Drive the Black Hills
Red Cloud Indian School
Pine Ridge (Lakota Oglala Reservation)
Wounded Knee
Drive the Badlands

I am not sure that my words can do my eyes justice. I saw beautiful sights; I had forgotten just how magnificent South Dakota really is. Mixed in with the whirlwind drive through three National Parks was a heavy dose of political realities and propaganda. 

I am torn on my thoughts about Crazy Horse. I was informed that protestors argued that a mammoth statue of the famed Warrior Chief goes against everything that he stood for. Native culture believe that the land is sacred. It is neither to be owned, nor defiled. The idea of the largest memorial monument would be seen as even more absurd. Additionally, the use of explosives to destroy large parts of the rocky mountain is something that many are not comfortable with as it further pollutes an environment that should be worshiped.

On the flip side of the argument, this large backdrop is the beginning to a Native American cultural awareness center. They hope to educate the public about their story. Just a few hours up the road from this monument is one of the poorest areas in the country. The Pine ridge reservation is a slap in the face of poverty. Traveling through the beautiful lands I see only beat up mobile homes that are lacking doors and windows. Roofs have been patched together, and broken down automobiles pepper land with a mosaic of decaying rust and steel, as if they are some sort of auto graveyard that leads you to the next family plot.

I heard words of anger muttered between hopeful discussions of equality and opportunity… and then I land at Wounded Knee. It is here that words fail me. Wounded Knee is a mass burial sight for 140 Natives. It is completely unkempt, with only a small painted sign to acknowledge that there is a historic sight near by. I experience a certain familiarity when I walk up to this sight. My grade school was Indian Hills; it was originally slated to be built on grounds that were discovered to be a burial sight. They preserved the sight by moving the school a few hundred yards away as to not miss any opportunity for premium land.

Wounded Knee offered no gift shop. I was offered no tourist manual or map. Instead, it was marked by overgrown flowers and weeds, a jagged path that leads from a make shift parking spot, and information center that is a Native with a pop up tent who will offer insight into the history of this historic sight. There were not flocks of tourists visiting like we experienced at both Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore.  Instead, my eyes were forced to contemplate the war torn graves of family plots which surrounded a mass grave as if to lend comfort to their fallen ancestors.  As I looked on, I couldn't help but feel the burden to not let such atrocities happen while I am alive.  Furthermore, I felt a sense of dutiful American pride to carry on the hope and spirit, while simultaneously needing to address some of the problems from our past.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mickey and Minnie got hitched by Elvis

Las Vegas and Disneyland.


I have delayed and debated what I would write about for Las Vegas.  If you haven’t been, Vegas is a very interesting place. For some it is a (desert) island oasis that is surrounded by mountains on each side.   Like many of the other stops to this point we have found many places that are off the beaten path.  Our visit included the following:


A visit with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Red Velvet

Two wedding chapels

Old Vegas

The Strip (including the fountains at the Bellagio, the Venetian, Sirens at Treasure Island, and Paris)


The Red Velvet is delicious.  However, it seems like it is about 15 minutes from everywhere in one of the many strip mall jungles that exist in Vegas.  It is a veggie-friendly joint, with a Red Velvet Vegan cake that is out of this world.  I think that visitors from Roswell may have dropped it off.  I digress.


As I walked around Vegas I thought about all of the people who journeyed  across the land with hopes of making it rich.  Was this the same ‘hope’ that we had been witnessing all along?  I don’t think that it is.   I am not quite sure what to make of it. 


What I am sure of is that Vegas is an adult playground.   Vegas is to adults what Disneyland is to kids.  (Although, I think Vegas is for adults that want to act like children).  Everyone that I spoke to said that they loved the lifestyle, but they would never raise a kid there.  As for me, I felt a little prudish as I walked around the streets.  In the meantime, there were thousands of people who flocked to the casinos, who went looking for a good time, a release, an escape, or maybe they simply wanted to enjoy the fantasy for a spell.


I couldn’t help but relate this to Disneyland experience, and how each step that I took was carefully constructed to lead me to someplace else.  Shall I go to Adventureland or Futureland?  As we walked around Disneyland, I saw the same glossed-over looks in the eyes of the children and their parents that I saw in Las Vegas from their patrons.   Both Disneyland and Vegas are man-made fantasylands.  Both were built to help us escape to far off exotic lands in the midst of our hectic daily lives.  Jean Baudrillard would suggest that these two places are ‘hyper-real’ as we have no doubts that they have been constructed for such purposes.  The reality is that all of the locations that we have visited have been fabricated to help lead us in a certain direction (some fabrications and paths make more sense than others).

I have never really fancied Vegas or Disneyland; neither place is really my cup of tea.  However, this latest excursion has forced me to really consider how they fit within the American landscape.  I think about what those two places offer in terms of escape and exploration, as well as dreams and desires.  Sometimes I lose sight that the land around me has been carefully created to offer up each of those ideas and feelings.  It is difficult to see when we are so consumed by our daily lives.   However, I think trips to these fabricated “exotic” locations like Disneyland to help me realize that everything around us has been purposely planned out for one reason or another.  Each place that we have visited has offered its own version of Vegas.  For instance, Nashville’s ‘Lower Broad’ gives a slightly different version, but offers you that “country experience”, New Orleans offers a bit of Cajun culture, etc.


This trip has pushed me to consciously examine the land around me as intentionally constructed for a certain purpose within the American landscape. I don’t think that we need to be unified in each place, rather; we have the opportunity to seek out the options in those places we do visit.  Perhaps one of the thinks that unites us is the opportunity to seek out answers, sometimes to questions we don't even know.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Resting among giants...

It is Friday morning in the Universe.  I am sitting on a rock in the Redwood Forest about 30 feet from a small stream.  The trees around me are easily one hundred feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide.  Today is our day to relax and reflect.  I am not sure where to begin this post.  I hope that those of you who have been following our blogs posts have gained a bit of insight into this excursion.  Perhaps we have even inspired you to go out and explore our country.


For me, this class has embodied all of the possibilities of the educational experience.  I have summoned ten young, eager and inquisitive souls.  I have asked that they embrace this journey and make it theirs.  I have further asked that they share their stories with you.  I was always taught that education comes with a certain responsibility and I think that it is important to share this experience with all of the people that made this journey possible.  Certainly Belmont University took a chance by allowing me to turn this crazy dream into a reality, but also our many friends and family members that have met us along the way, cheered us on behind the scenes, offered support and advice, and even directions when our navigational instruments have failed us (I maintain that I am ‘eagle eyes’ with an incredible sense of direction).


I don’t have any idea what life was like for early settlers or the natives in this great land.  What I do understand is that we have embraced the United States as a land of hope and possibility.  It is clear that some Americans have greater possibilities and options than others.  I have been forced to deal with my privilege and entitlement along the way.  I think this type of introspection is healthy and has been one of the many eye-opening experiences for the students as well.  But as I sit here on this rock, typing away on my MacBook I think of wonderful faces, hugs received from strangers, the breaking of bread with friends that I met only hours before, of 10 wide eyed students who are curious to know this world, and even more passionate to make a difference.   Have no doubt that this is an exhaustive experience.  We are fully entrenched in the potential of this class and together we attempt to rally even when we only want to sleep. 


Why do families and friends camp?  We have grown accustomed to the 50-hour workweek.  We live to work, and sometimes work to scrape by. People camp to escape and get away.  We want to hear silence, and breath clean air.  It is hard to just sit and be in nature, but learning to think like a tree is perhaps the greatest lesson learned to this point.  These trees that surround have not only survived, they have nurtured the lives around them, they have helped lost souls, they have provided homes and support and continue to reach toward the sky.  The bark is rough and rigid from a hard life, but they stand tall and strong and proud. It is Friday afternoon in everywhere U.S.A. and I am exploring this great land and these amazing people.  I am inspired and hopeful for our future.


I hope that those of you who have followed our story, and those who have stumbled across our trip have taken in a bit, perhaps you’ve even learned something new along the way.  If time allows, and even if it doesn’t… I highly recommend finding a rock in a forest and just sitting to take it all in.  Look at the sky.  Be one with the wind and the trees.  Meditate on that for a bit and let the workweek fade into the distance.  Breathe in the good air and out with the bad.  Feel free to reflect at anytime.

Navajo Nation

Day Seven.


I am truly humbled.


We arrived in Gallup, New Mexico to pick up our van and quickly learned about time. As a people, Americans are always running from place to place.  We seem to try to pack as much into our days as possible, privileging quantity over quality, while simultaneously complaining about not having enough time to do what we want or spend with the ones we love.  On the other side of this spectrum are Natives, which are equally hard working and purposeful, but they operate on their own time schedule (this actually works really well for us as traveling on the bus with 12 people is hard to stay precisely on schedule).


We were not even to the reservation… Already we are taught about hope in times of despair, we are taught about privilege, and about luxury.  I am traveling the country on a million dollar bus, meanwhile the people of the Navajo Nation are limited to one-room homes called Hogan and they are lucky to have those.  They have been removed from their fertile lands and yet they are able to grow an array of vegetables from lands that look barren.  Meanwhile, we chased the ghosts of sheep across the desert only to find their souls waiting for us back at the ranch.


I sat in a Hogan that has been used as a church for the local Navajo.  They are Christian.  I prayed with them several times during this day and each prayer seemed to summon the Holy Spirit.  I heard the stories of tragedy, of alcoholism, of losing land, losing family members, of a general lack of services that I take for granted…  Every prayer either begins or ends with a blessing for us on our journey.  Some of the prayers are focused solely on us.    


As we travel across the reservation we visit the capitol, Window Rock.  While there, we visit the Presidential Offices and are offered a private tour of the facilities.  As we sit in the Vice Presidents office, I am hit with story after story that makes being an American a difficult pill to swallow.  Our history is not what we learn in grade school.  I am not sure why we are willing to accept the watered-down version of history. 

Do the publishers of the texts think that we, as a people, cannot handle the truth?  Does our government think the same? I am not certain that ignorance is bliss.   I think if we are to grow as a people, as well as a nation, we must take a hard look within…  We are not a nation built on all of the right decisions.  We are not righteous.  We have failed, and I am certain that we will continue to along the way.  I think the important part is how we deal with failure.  In my own life, I have been taught to deal with the consequences of my actions.  I think we may have lost sight of that idea.


Regardless of the information and stories that we learned in school, the Navajo are a passionate people.  They displayed perhaps the greatest amount of hope that we have encountered.     They welcomed us with open arms as their ancestors did years ago.  I only hope that we left them with a better ending.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Still Grand After All These Years

So I am still working on my Navajo Nation blog, but I figured this one didn't require a lot of words to tell the story.  The Grand Canyon has been a staple in family vacations for decades.  We encountered so many people from around the globe (there were a lot of non-Americans) all embracing our great landscape.  However, I think it was even nicer that we were able to break away and hike the trail ourselves. At this point in our stay, I think we needed to just see the land and escape to our own heads to reflect for a bit.  Here is a bit of our meditation. Chris' photos tell a part of the story.

I am saying look at the big hole.

This was our hike.  Walking down was beautiful, walking up...  well, that was our workout for the day.

Perfect cloud.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Our stop in Roswell was exactly what we needed.  We are coming off of several intense days with a lot to process.  Whether or not you believe in UFO’s, this city has embraced the possibility and thoroughly branded itself.  Aliens are everywhere. 

My first encounter was at the grocery store as I waited for Enterprise to open.  I walked around the corner of an isle and was staring at …alien key chains, shot glasses and magnets.  Did I somehow walk into another gift shop?

We went to the International UFO Museum, but on the way there we noticed that all of the businesses were attempting to capitalize off of the alien identity.  Arby’s had a sign that read “aliens welcome here”, the coke machines had pictures of aliens drinking their beverage, in fact nearly all of the signs provided some connection back to this identity.  

Have this many people seen aliens or UFO’s?  Most of the people we spoke with in Roswell claimed some connection, whether they had directly experienced it, or they knew of someone who had.  The museum itself attempted to provide the whole story… I think.  Honestly it was a bit hard to follow and I was not quite prepared for so much reading. 


Afterward we crossed the street to “Not of This World CafĂ©” where we met with one of the founders of Alien Resistance.  Alien Resistance is a Christian Organization that uses the Bible as a reference to prove that Aliens exist, although, they exist through evil spirits.  They claim that by adopting Christ will you free yourself from these evil alien spirits.  You can read up on the organization here and decide for yourself.


After a solid beginning I think this was the type of experience that all of us wanted.  It offered up a little food for thought, but was easier to digest.  

Friday, June 12, 2009

Everything is bigger in Texas... including pride.

Day Four and Day Five.


San Antonio and El Paso.


In efforts to catch up on my blogging, I am lumping Texas into one big blog. 


There exists a certain Texas pride that I wish I understood.  I wasn’t off the bus for more than an hour when I heard my first proclamation of loyalty to Texas.  Indeed, I have enjoyed both stops in Texas, but it is hard to ignore that this was one of the first places that I didn’t initially feel that sense of common identity under the umbrella of being an American.   


San Antonio is beautiful.  I was rather impressed with San Antonio’s River Walk and its efforts in new urbanism downtown.  It seemed to balance the old with the new.  Walking into the center of town you see a lot of public art, the San Fernando Cathedral (the oldest Catholic Cathedral in the U.S.), the Alamo, and brilliant architecture on several buildings.


The Alamo provided similar experience to the Clinton Presidential Library and Graceland.  It hinted at history, but offered only a snapshot.  I had to laugh at the irony of a particular sign that proclaimed that they wanted to keep it from being commercialized.  That sign was located about 30 yards from a gift shop, 40 yards from a Ripley’s Museum, and 50 yards from a Wax Museum.  It was like they stole Gatlinburg and dropped it off across from the Alamo.  It was only missing a place to get an airbrushed t-shirt.   I must say that I was a little put off by the creeping commercialism that exists so closely to the historic site.  The grounds of the Alamo are beautiful, but the Ripley’s Museum or the Haagen Das that stood just a few feet across the street kind of offends my sense of history.  I am not anti-progress, or capitalism or consumption.   However, should we protect and preserve bits of our past.  I always have mixed feelings when a former Church becomes someone’s house, or becomes a nightclub of some sort. 


We had a special guest when we were visited from Dr Pepper (interesting side note… the Dr in Dr Pepper never has a “.”).  Dr Pepper is made in Waco, Texas and as we were sitting in the gazebo outside of the Alamo holding class, Matt Burchette and his wife Holly, came around the corner with cold bottles of Dr Pepper to cool us in the hot Texas sun.  Matt and I plotted out this class on Cinco de Mayo in 2007 (we had conversations about it for about 4 months prior).  In any case, Matt and Holly drove 200 miles to meet up with us and discuss Texas history.   They are both native Texans and helped shed a bit of light on Texas pride.   I am still not certain that I understand it, but I am getting closer.



El Paso.


El Paso was an unexpected gem.  In their downtown area they have several museums.  They are smaller than many of the museums that I have been to, but they are all of great quality and located within a block of each other. 


We had our second shower of the trip.  All in all I am feeling pretty clean.  We showered at UTEP in the morning.  I am trying to mention all of the folks that have helped us out along they way.  We have been very fortunate that many people have opened their doors to us, have went out of their way to accommodate us, or made special opportunities available.  I interpret that as part of the spirit of this country.  We have worked with a lot of other colleges, family members and friends of the all of us have taken time to meet up, and generally people across this land have been more than willing to engage in conversations with us. 


One of the questions that we ask everyone is what does it mean to be an American?   And what I have found is that everyone is willing to talk about it, even if they are not quite sure what it means to them.  It seems that we through around the words like freedom and patriotic but most have not thought about what those words entail, of what they are free from (or to do).  Are we becoming a bullet point culture?  We speak in bullets. We think in bullets.  Most of the people we have asked to this point say that they have never been asked that question before.  So if any of you are reading this, I hope you stop and think of what it means to you.


I say this because we drove along the fence on the border.  El Paso (which I am told is the second safest big city in the U.S.) is right across the Rio Grande (a river that is maybe 50 feet wide) from Juarez, Mexico (which seems to be one of the most dangerous places at the moment).  Immigration is very much a hot topic in places like Tennessee and Kentucky.  Interestingly, it is not an issue in El Paso.  The white population is in the minority in El Paso, and it seems that everyone gets along quite well.  In many ways I thought El Paso was more like Mexico than Cancun.   But as we hear about immigration and think why people want to come into the United States, I think it is important to reflect on our own privilege.



We also visited Fort Bliss, which included lunch at a mess hall, trips to the Old Fort Bliss Museum, the Air Defense Museum (complete with the gift shop – I wish I though about it sooner, but the key chain, magnet and shot glass collection I could have would be incredible).  The Air Defense Museum painted an interesting picture of our conflict and relations with other countries throughout history.  Fort Bliss as a whole is a city inside of El Paso.  It is completely self-sufficient and tax-free and has all of the fast food chains that one could hope for (I suppose some actually do hope for fast food).


On our way out of town we were paid one last visit from some friendly Texans as the Border Patrol stopped us and asked to board our bus.   Apparently illegal immigrants are traveling in style these days.  In any case, I thought it was a very fitting way to cap the Texas experience. 


On to Roswell.