Never before has a year been so fraught with converging calamities. Leading up to the most consequential presidential election in memory, America had reached an inflection point. Award-winning travel memoirist Brad Herzog, a Pacific Grove resident, decided to chronicle the unprecedented moment. Not 2020 in hindsight, but in real time.
“DETOUR 2020: A Cross-Country Drive Through America’s Wrong Turns” (Why Not Books, December 2020) is a trip through America’s existential battlegrounds. Piloting a sputtering camper that serves as a metaphor for a struggling country, Herzog takes the reader from coast to coast — to Jamestown and Appomattox, Hazard and Dodge City, Metropolis and Roswell, the Little House on the Prairie and the Grand Canyon. Each stop allows examination of America’s wrong turns — entrenched and emboldened racism, conspiracism, science denial, uncivil discourse, misplaced idolatry, malignant leadership. This excerpt from his book tells how his journey began.
Herzog will talk more about his book this Tuesday in an online author’s event at 5 p.m.; follow the link to sign up.
New Hope is somewhere, but I don’t see the signs.
The map tells me it’s an unincorporated community along this stretch of Route 5 in southern Virginia, but it looks to be little more than a couple of gas pumps and a country store. Unmarked. Blink and you miss it. I’m only 30 miles into a 3,400-mile journey, and already my roadmap is shrugging. Summer is waning as I make my way westward. Autumn will soon arrive — reluctantly, I assume, with a deep breath and a hard swallow, like a bearer of bad tidings preparing to face an angry crowd.
This is 2020, after all.
Already it has muscled its way onto everyone’s list of one of the most god-awful years in American history. The worst global health crisis since 1918. More Americans out of work than in the Great Depression. Unimaginable wildfires scorching the West and creating hellish skyscapes across the country. Social unrest echoing the chaos and cultural confrontations of 1968, and civil discourse in shambles. A government so cruel and incompetent that it separates children from their parents at the border and loses track of mom and dad. A nation so polarized that fears of a new civil war have moved from hyperbole to the realm of possibility.
We’ve all talked about it, so much so that the notion has become cliché long before the year is even over. The memes proliferate: Doc from Back to the Future warns Marty, “Whatever you do, don’t go to 2020.” A knight, armored head to toe, still receives an arrow through his eye slit. A question: If 2020 were a drink, what would it be? Answer: Colonoscopy prep.
The peripheral news has started to seem absurdly apocalyptic, almost sardonic:
Death Valley Soars to 130 Degrees, Potentially Earth’s Highest Temperature
Intensifying Hurricanes are Helping Invasive Species Spread Across the U.S.
Texas Governor Issues Disaster Declaration Over Brain-Eating Amoeba
When we hear about murder hornets in Washington or zombie cicadas in West Virginia or giant Saharan dust storms or sun-blotting plagues of locusts in Kenya or gangs of monkeys taking over the streets of Thailand, the default response these days is a shake of the head, a wry chuckle, and simply “That’s so 2020.” I watch a football game. The announcer discusses injuries: “Everyone’s hurt. It’s 2020, for crying out loud.” And even when we can perceive some positives—say, an electorate motivated to vote as never before—we wake up the next morning to a headline like this:
Asteroid Heading Our Way Right Before Election Day
Amid these converging calamities, we’re doing our best to greet each day with resolve and make the most of a forced paradigm shift. But we’re weary and wary, tired of most every decision requiring existential considerations and fearful of what might happen next. We’re discombobulated, divorced from our routine, missing our families and friends, shaken by the loss of control over our lives. Meanwhile, an aspiring autocrat in a MAGA hat abdicates leadership, amplifying COVID denials while cases surge. He brazenly games the electoral system in advance of the most important election in modern U.S. history, as he prepares to gaslight victory and won’t promise a peaceful transfer of power if the results don’t satisfy him. As he dismantles democracy in plain sight, the sense of impending doom that has hovered over a huge swath of the population for years now has seemed to peak.
We are at an American inflection point. We all feel it. So I’m taking a drive.
"If you’re hoping for a dispassionate assessment of America, hitch a ride with someone else [....] you can’t drive cross-country in neutral."
My goal is to chronicle this unprecedented moment—this “season of darkness,” as Joe Biden described it—amid this unfathomable year. Not 2020 in hindsight, but in real time. Not from a lonely writing room, but through an expedition into the heart of America and its conflicts, its history, its tragic deviations. By the time this is documented, the nation may have tipped toward one direction or the other. Or its future may still hang in the balance. But this particular moment requires recording—one mile marker at a time—if only to assess where we are.
This is a spontaneous undertaking, primarily motivated by the simple fact that I have to get home and by the appeal of turning an obligatory journey into a meandering exploration. As the song goes, I’m going to California with an aching in my heart. After spending the summer with my family in Wisconsin, I dropped off my son in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he and three friends randomly landed after a summer-long house search. They’ve opted for a COVID pause from campus life, among the millions worldwide whose best-laid plans have been crumpled and tossed. I don’t know when I’ll see my firstborn again.
It is ironic, I suppose, that he finds himself just a few blocks from the living history museum of Colonial Williamsburg—in fact, sharing the property with a professional blacksmith who trudges to an 18th-century armory every day in period costume. As I make my way home to California, my son will be immersing himself in a nation’s beginnings, while I’ll be exploring its possible demise.
We had momentum, of course. We had elected the first Black president. It looked certain that the first woman would follow him into the Oval Office, a development well past due. The economy had fully recovered from a monumental recession. We were addressing climate change through an international accord and were en route to making green energy an economic opportunity. It seemed like we were continuing the progressive climb toward enlightenment in America. Our path was clear, our engine sound, and the road seemed to rise to meet us.
And then the momentum stopped. Sputtered. Died.
So it turns out that I’m driving a metaphor home. To make our way safely out to the Midwest, my family had borrowed a little camper from a generous friend back in our hometown. “Take it for the summer,” she said, while she sheltered in place. The RV had accrued some 145,000 miles over the years, but a pre-trip inspection had given us the greenlight. And it was all green lights—until the alternator conked out in eastern Montana, in a place so middle-of-nowhere that the closest reference point was the location of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Following an afternoon of angst, a long backtrack toward civilization, and a hefty bill, we were back on our way. But before we could complete our drive through North Dakota, the “check engine” light came on, and every time I would coast to a stop the damn thing would cough and surge and gasp and go silent.
It has been happening ever since. By now, mechanics in four states have tried to diagnose the problem. A new throttle connector. No, a burned-out spark plug and wire. Uh-uh, it obviously needs a new idle air control valve. And each time, the RV seems fine for a day—until it isn’t. I’ve forked over fourteen hundred bucks, and still the same problem: Stop. Surge. Sputter. Stall.
And I have more than three thousand miles ahead of me.
Thus, a love-hate relationship with my little COVID-cautious bubble on wheels, which allows me the luxury of exploration but adds yet another layer of stress to my world. I figure this enigmatic vehicle deserves a name. “Rocinante” would have been perfect. Like my camper, Don Quixote’s horse was an old nag past its prime, aspiring to legendary feats but overmatched. Unfortunately, John Steinbeck borrowed the name for his travels exactly 60 years ago. So I seek a sobriquet that captures the zeitgeist of this rotten year—the confusion, the exasperation, the crises exacerbated by a petty president’s tweeted id, and the sense that the nation’s pilot has fallen asleep at the wheel.
My choice is obvious. I’ll call it Covfefe. One man’s gibberish is another man’s deliverance.
If you’re hoping for a dispassionate assessment of America, hitch a ride with someone else. This drive will be fueled by too much unleaded gas and no shortage of opinions, few of them likely to be seen through a rose-colored windshield. After all, you can’t drive cross-country in neutral.
And everywhere I go, mile by mile, town by town, I’ll be trying to answer much the same question: How the hell did we get here?
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