travel

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 1

First part of an eight-part series. Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

To call this a travelogue is misleading and unwise. I did spend six days journeying through twelve states, most previously visited but barely explored. I did see things I had not seen before. I did learn about people and places hitherto unknown. But in trying to record my memories of each leg and each stop, I have found myself wary of using a certain tone, a certain positioning, given where I went and who I am. The travelogue is often— though not exclusively— a colonial undertaking, emotionally profiting off of some persons other than the writer, whether or not the writer shows any awareness of the colonial history of the locale. In many cases the travelogue proves little more than a form of navel-gazing, too, teaching the reader less about the area and more about the writer who visited.

I don’t really want to write something that falls into such territory. Rather, in some vaguely journalistic or documentarian fashion, I have hoped to transmit my witnessing of a total solar eclipse, which is a momentous celestial event that has only remained possible within a limited portion of this planet’s history; and for full experiential context I will also transmit the preceding and subsequent events. How I got there, what frame of reference I found myself in once the eclipse took place, what I observed in leaving the site. It does so happen that the eclipse happened at a time of peculiar importance, and that I bore witness in a geographic region of equal importance to that time.

With any luck, the act of travel itself will feel incidental to my overall focus. Perhaps, too, my contextual narrative will gaze less at navels, less at “others,” and more at points in history and topography that merit observation on a cosmic scale. As with the principle of relativity, I cannot completely separate the thing I’ve witnessed from my own position as the witness, but well—

Let’s begin. On the morning of Saturday the 19th of August, 2017, I sat myself down in the passenger seat of a sturdy, fairly dependable vehicle, and the man I love and live with— I will call him my husband here, but he is something more and better than that— he sat in the driver’s seat, and we left our home with the intention of reaching Greenville, South Carolina in time for the total solar eclipse projected to occur there on Monday the 21st. It spoils no great mystery to say that we made it there, of course, but after going to several other parts of the country together, this was our first time driving all the way to our destination with no assistance from other people, with our own vehicle, and with the underlying motive completely our own. Not until the past couple of years could we truly afford to spend that amount of time away from our jobs or spend the requisite money to enjoy the trip. We still absolutely do not have the luxury of doing such things whenever we want. I— oh, I’ll hazard to say we— simply knew that because we did barely have the means, we could not shirk the chance to see something extremely perfect happen to the world.

I say “extremely perfect” in a certain way. Maybe it will become clearer as I write more. I am a perfectionist, and perfection is so hard to come by that the few extremely perfect things in this world are equivalent to religious revelations. They are religious revelations in the case of the cosmos. To see the total eclipse was to go on a pilgrimage.

In order to reach the eclipse and in order to leave it, we would need to pass through and spend some time in what most people in the United States still call the South. Such phrasing shouldn’t imply there is anything about the South that is not southern, but if I invoke the South as a delineating term (or the West, for that matter), there are immediate connotations, both helpful and unhelpful. If you mention going to the South to a lot of terribly smug people outside it, or even sometimes inside it, they’re likely to come up with responses such as, “Oh, god, I’m sorry, I hope you survive.”

I cringe at such soundbytes. On the one hand, I’m virulently queer, gender non-conforming, specifically a person with breasts who also gets five o’clock shadow, and I wear lots of unsubtle attire— leather, spikes, low necklines, short hemlines, occult iconography— so in any place with a high concentration of bigotry, evangelical Christianity, and conservative sex/gender standards, no, I don’t feel as safe as I feel in places where there are more people like me. On the other hand, if I had lived in the South in bygone days, I would not have been enslaved or lynched or systematically deprived of my rights on racial grounds, and today I am still not in the highest risk group for being murdered by police, contemporary Klan members, and so forth. I appreciate hearing genuine concern for my well-being down South in light of certain factors, but usually “I hope you survive” means, “I hope you, Mx. Jones, whom I perceive as an Enlightened & Educated Non-Southerner Like Myself, can intellectually survive the stupidity of the Unenlightened & Uneducated South.”

There are wide swaths of Klan territory outside the South. There are cities with ugly, terrible white supremacist pasts across the United States, including my home city of Boston. I knew Christian fundamentalists when I was growing up in New Hampshire. I experience anti-queer, anti-trans violence and ignorance anywhere that I go. Almost every stretch of land in the United States is occupied by settlers who violently stole it from indigenous peoples and who continue to steal from and enact atrocities upon those very real, very alive populations. The South strikes me as having a certain flavor to its racism and its overall patterns of discrimination, and I can’t speak to how some arbitrary example of a black person ought to feel in the South versus anywhere else, but I believe that for me personally to visit the South I am not diving into some uniquely intense grotto of evil. It is simply a unique region on any level.

And because it is a region with particular significance to the history of white supremacism, it seemed like strange timing to venture there only a week after an exceptionally horrific flareup of fascist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seemed even stranger that the day we set off, a fascist rally had also been planned in Boston itself. If we could have realistically left any later, I know I would have attended the counter-event; I take some consolation from the fact that I’ve already participated in plenty of similar events for related purposes, and you just can’t do them all. There’s my activist virtue signaling out of the way. We set out on the morning of the 19th. Our first stop on the way to Greenville would be a city slightly less than halfway between: Philadelphia.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 2.

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Florida

Florida is desolate. It is the most green, most lush of all possible wastelands I have yet encountered. I have been in the Fort Lauderdale area for private reasons since the very end of August, and soon I will be going home, and not a moment too soon.

I hold the average Floridian no ill will. Not everyone chooses to live here, and like any other part of this country, the original inhabitants have much more of a right than me to talk about who should or shouldn’t be here. The land itself is beautiful, even if it isn’t within a climate my body, mind, or hairstyle can tolerate. I at least admire palms in an aesthetic vein, and I have been fascinated to see so many different species here. There seem to be even more than I’ve encountered on trips to California. Other interesting trees and plants abound, and there are little lizards skittering everywhere, and there are herons, and if the travel schedule had permitted, my husband and I would gladly have gone to tour the Everglades. The summer weather tantalizes my amateur meteorologist; it is unpredictable, but predictably so. Daily, there may be at least one thunderstorm, and though I may curse profusely at driving through them, though I retain a childlike nervousness about being struck by lightning outdoors, I have immensely enjoyed watching the rain and wind and chaos from the safety of the hotel room or the parked rental car. The flat land and the gigantic cloud masses stagger me; every afternoon’s palette is blended lapis and emerald and mist.

I am glad, in a certain way, to have seen these things, to experience some of the farthest southerly reaches of this continent. Though I have seen several unique places across the globe, this is my first time in the tropics. I may be perpetually too warm in the outdoor humidity, too cold and dry in the indoor high-power air conditioning; I may find it unthinkable to personally live somewhere with such a routine risk of hurricanes and flash floods. Still, it’s something new, and it’s good to meet the new.

Almost everyone I have met has been kind. As a New Englander I always have to adjust to random strangers talking to me as if we know each other, but it’s never felt invasive yet. Most people I have met, of course, are workers providing me with services, so I suspect that some of this is a “customer is always right” ethos combining with Southern hospitality, but I have not yet run across the passive-aggressive Stepford niceness I loathe, and frankly I would expect that from a rather different sort of person here. Probably the sort of people who can afford to drive Dodge Chargers. We have counted approximately two score distinct Dodge Chargers here, never mind all of the other sports cars. I should note that I actually like Chargers; that doesn’t mean I have to like their owners.

I’ve eaten food that ranges from decent to delicious. I’ve enjoyed the chance to drive on some exquisitely well-arranged roads where most drivers use a reasonable speed, neither too fast nor too slow, even though I seem to be an anomaly for believing in turn signals. Driving around Fort Lauderdale has become one of my favorite activities here, in fact. I can control the air temperature in my vehicle, I can look at the wonderful trees, I can appreciate the vistas, I can listen to music, and all without much stress. Given that I haven’t regularly driven a car in five years, this has been reassuring.

But the state is desolate. I know this is not a completely fair statement. I have only seen one corner of it, and I’m not expecting to venture any further than a day trip to Miami on Tuesday. During my first few days here, I consciously told myself to have an open mind. I had indeed set foot in a place that, for good or ill, I associated with grotesque heat, bourgeois retirees, and the very worst of conservative politics. Though I had long established that I would never go to Florida unless I had no other option— and, for this trip, I will assure you that I had none— it seemed wise to make the best of a twelve day stay and try to find things I could appreciate. This was how I allowed myself to notice the natural beauty and the relative ease in getting about. I tried not to look for flaws just to say that I had seen them. Unfortunately, the flaws still hit me like a sledgehammer. I did not really have to look in order for them to appear.

It’s the apotheosis of suburban planning. It’s the highly manicured, institutionalized shepherding of the elderly. It’s the utter lack of organic neighborhoods. I have seen essentially no work of architecture that doesn’t seem to have dropped out of the sky without respect for the wildlife around it. I am given nature, but the beauty I find is in that which has just managed to escape human control, not what has been trimmed and set out for me. After a point, I have no words to describe the literally endless strip malls, full-size malls, housing complexes, chain restaurants, every few intersections nearly a clone of the others half a mile away. If the streets did not have such useful signage, and if I did not have GPS access, I would get lost in an instant because of each town’s homogeneity. Sunrise. Tamarac. Coral Springs. Pembroke Pines. Plantation (yes, a town called Plantation). They are all clones, right down to the paint on the buildings, probably right down to the layout of the golf courses.

I know that my complaints are not original. I’m issuing boilerplate criticisms about many parts of the United States, of which Florida is ultimately just an archetypal example. I had the pretentious thought, at one point, “I imagine people will immediately know I’m not from around here.” Yes, me, the exceedingly not-tanned, not-thin, young-ish person with unusual hair, metal playing in the car, dramatic makeup, all-black clothing even in the heat. This was not just a pretentious thought but also, I suspect, an incorrect one. Florida is not actually composed of preppy, orange-skinned people who spend their days boating, golfing, visiting South Beach, and drinking mid-quality mojitos. Rather, the state has a very diverse population, and it simply tries very hard— even harder than some other places— to make it difficult for a lot of those people to live there comfortably. It wouldn’t even be right to say that the state lacks the subcultures with which I associate or one might think I do. Florida has a distinct goth scene, a strong leather community, and an extremely well-known metal scene for fans of the genre.

If I spent more time here, I would be very keen to explore what drives and enriches the good, interesting residents. Some of the best art comes from unlivable conditions, and sometimes that art is what secretly makes them livable. In theory, I would like to not hate this place.

But after I leave it, I don’t have enough money or leisure time to prioritize a trip back to Florida over trips to many other places I’ve always wanted to see. So it is probable that my twelve days in Florida will be my only days in Florida. I have the distinct sense that I’m going to leave it with my thoughts summarized by this rather pointless, nose-upturned, thoroughly Yankee, miniature travelogue. If some people— some— wanted to show me how I was wrong about this state, they ought to. In the meantime, however, I need to get away from the bleakness of so much beauty thwarted by so much concrete. That’s a trite summary of a complex problem, but so far I have found almost nothing in Florida that wasn’t a cliché, and therefore I will keep that thought precisely as it is.

DLJ