A Big Adventure, For Us and America
It was late June 2008, and Chelle’s final school term was coming to an end, after more than thirty five years of teaching in the New York City public schools. I was winding up plans to transfer my responsibilities at the NYC Department of Health while building a new entertainment center in our fifth-wheel trailer.
We had put our house up for sale and hoped to set out on “Our Big Adventure”… a cross-country camping trip we had been talking about since before we got married in 1982.
We had hoped to hit the road before the end of summer, head slowly toward California, stop to visit Chelle’s family in Santa Barbara for a week or two, and then continue our travels to parts unknown. We had both lived in New York our entire lives, and we looked forward to a whole new chapter, albeit with some apprehension. At the same time, we were wary of the looming turmoil in the New York financial markets, and sick of the unnecessary, endless wars the country had been plunged into.
However, the unlikely candidacy of Senator Barack Obama had given us, and much of the country, a ray of hope. We made sure to request our absentee ballots from New York before we left!
A Change of Plans
Then came July, when Chelle got an unexpected response to an email she had sent a year earlier, from a “Ranger Cathy Wills” at Carpinteria State Beach, asking whether we were still interested in volunteering as “camp hosts” at her state park in Southern California. That particular campground was just ten minutes from Chelle’s family in Santa Barbara, but since we hadn’t heard back, we forgot about it before Ranger Cathy’s email. “Yes, you bet we are, Ranger Cathy!” The only catch was that we had to be there by the first of September! It was already July, we had no offers , or even serious lookers, for the house, which was still full of furniture – most of which we weren’t going to keep – and our extensive collections of records and books that we weren’t going to part with. On top of that, we had lots of clothing and other articles we couldn’t fit in the camper; they needed to be shipped to Chelle’s sister, who had agreed to hold on to them for us until we found another place to put them. Worst of all, the new camper entertainment center didn’t exist yet, and the original was already in a landfill, leaving electrical wires hanging from the ceiling of the RV. The clock was suddenly ticking, and with so much left to do, we knew we would have to run the clock out, leaving the bare minimum of time for traveling across the country for the first time.
“Plannin’ Out a Route We’re Gonna Take Real Soon…”
We weren’t “waxing down our surfboards” yet, but as July became August, we kept making progress with the camper modifications, clothing shipments and packing records and books into a tight little storage unit in nearby Rockville Centre.
The trickle of prospective home buyers had dried up completely, and we worried about leaving the house empty, especially during a New York winter, so we decided to rent out our house for a year, hoping the housing market would rebound by then.
We set about planning the most direct route from New York to Carpinteria, and calculated that it would take us at least a week to get there. Professional long-haul truck drivers can make it across in four days by driving twelve hours a day, not counting food and refueling breaks, but that didn’t seem realistic for us. We also hated the idea of traveling clear across the country for the first time without stopping to see a single thing! So we decided to leave on Saturday August 23rd, giving ourselves ten days to get to Carpinteria. Then we set about planning the stops along the way, eight of which were just for one night.
One of those overnight stops, it turned out, would be in Golden, Colorado, just outside Denver, on Thursday August 28th – the night Senator Obama was scheduled to accept the Democratic nomination for President, at Mile High Stadium, just a few miles down US Highway 6 from our campsite! We figured we had better reserve a site at the campground well in advance… but we had no idea yet just how fortunate it would be to have planned that one stop a month in advance…
It took most of Saturday August 23rd to squeeze the last few things into our camper as our neighbors watched us hitch up to our bright red pickup truck.
We lived on a dead-end street, and no one on our block had ever seen a 30-foot long “fifth wheel” trailer before, much less one that was parked on their block for a month and a half. Just as we started to pull away, we heard a loud “THUNK!” as the trailer dismounted from the hitch and landed on the rails of the pickup truck bed! As the crowd of neighbors stopped waving and quickly backed away, we got out of the truck to survey the damage… fortunately, there was hardly any, as we had a very long truck bed and fairly high side rails. So we put the trailer legs back down and began to hitch up again, carefully inspecting that the clamp on the hitch had firmly closed around the pin on the trailer.
Esmeralda the Bag Lady who had faithfully guarded our vestibule waved goodbye from our front door, as a light rain began to fall, and we bade goodbye to Oceanside New York.
Rust Belt to the Amber Waves
We made only a few stops along Interstate 80, through the “rust belt” of Pennsylvania and Ohio to Indiana, stopping to tour the Crossroads RV factory where our trailer was made.
Then we drove across northern Illinois and the rolling hills and dales of Iowa, through the endless cornfields of Nebraska. On our fifth day, we got up early at Prairie Oasis Campground in Henderson Nebraska and hit the road for the long drive into central Colorado, with high hopes of getting close to the convention site, and possibly to see or hear some of the excitement. As things turned out, we got much more excitement that afternoon than we had bargained for.
A Mile High and a Low Blow(out)
About an hour away from our “Mile High” destination, as we sped along Interstate 76 and the outskirts of Denver began to appear in the distance, someone in a Volkswagen pulled up beside us, waving their hands and pointing to our trailer.
We weren’t sure why, so we pulled onto the shoulder to discover that one of our trailer tires had blown apart! Undeterred, we called AAA for assistance, only to learn that our New York membership didn’t cover trailers! Since we had already been members for 37 years, the rep agreed to give us a few phone numbers to call for roadside assistance. In the meantime, we hadn’t seen any highway patrol cars to help us out, so we tried calling 911. We were concerned about being stuck on the narrow shoulder with tractor-trailers zooming by at 75 MPH, but the local police were already busy at the convention center. After trying several numbers, we finally reached someone at Wiggins Junction Towing. Although we did have a spare tire for the trailer, we still had a long journey ahead of us, and it seemed the blown-out tire was not the only tire that needed replacing. We were learning our second lesson about being full-time road warriors: trailer tires are notoriously unpredictable! For various reasons, trailer tires don’t come with a warranty or even a prediction for mileage or age, so if you plan to do a lot of traveling, be prepared to replace them often.
What Makes America Great
Once we were able to move off the shoulder of the road, we followed the tow truck back to Wiggins Junction.
They didn’t have our tire size in stock, but they found a pair of tires at a shop about an hour away, and kindly offered to let us wait in the back of the shop where the family lived in a few rooms.
While the kids played with our dog Muttley, the tow operator’s wife offered us some coffee. She wore a hijab, and we got to talking and sharing stories about where we all came from. They were Arab Americans who had immigrated to Colorado from Jerusalem, and Chelle told them about life on a kibbutz outside Haifa, where she lived for a few months after college. A couple of hours later, her husband arrived back with the tires, mounted them on our trailer, and we were finally on our way.
Change We Could Believe In
Denver was still an hour away, but we could see Mile High Stadium as we listened to Senator Obama’s acceptance speech on the radio, and then the fireworks began to explode overhead.
We drove right by the amazing spectacle as we headed to Dakota Ridge RV park just down US highway 6. It was an exhilarating experience to be in the same place where this historic event was happening, and you could feel the swell of hope for our nation that was in the Denver air that evening. Within a few weeks, Lehman Brothers, a private financial giant that had somehow become essential to the US economy, would file for bankruptcy protection, signaling the unmistakable beginning of a major economic catastrophe. It soon became clear that the plans and dreams Barack Obama had championed throughout the primaries would be overwhelmed by the urgent need to rescue the country from financial collapse. The “skinny guy with the funny name,” as he often refers to himself, and despite his relative inexperience in “big government,” he would turn out to be the right guy at the right time. With a tremendous upsurge of hope and bipartisan support, Barack Obama was elected president just over two months later.
Keeping the Audacity of Hope Alive
President Obama led the nation through a time of real peril. With millions of jobs lost, entire industries on the verge of collapse, foreclosures and bank failures all across the country, we didn’t need fake news reports, phony statistics or Russian hackers to tell us how bad things really had become. In the years since that day outside Denver, we have traveled across the country fifteen times, plus four trips all over the west during his presidency, and we saw both the desolation and the recovery firsthand. Despite his own popularity and broad support for his policies, he faced mounting resistance, then obstructionism and outright disrespect and even racism from some members Congress and the public who, for whatever reason, couldn’t bear to see him succeed.
Yet, Barack Obama never gave up, never lashed out, and always managed to lift up and inspire the country. There was never a whiff of personal scandal, nor even a hint of self-interest throughout his eight years in office.
First Lady Michelle Obama, reluctant to be in the spotlight herself, nevertheless inspired children and adults to become healthier, more active and caring for one another, and the Obama First Family is a role model for the entire country.
The final year of President Obama’s second term increasingly contrasted with the appalling gutter-wallowing of the 2016 election campaigns. We traveled all over the United States throughout his tenure, in “red” states and “blue” states, and we talked to people of all different backgrounds and points of view, yet we never encountered the “bitter divisions” we constantly hear about on cable news channels. I have no doubt that if Barack Obama could have run for a third term – if he weren’t prohibited from running again by the 22nd Amendment, or as he often joked, by his exhausted wife Michelle – there would have been a very different outcome to the last presidential election. No doubt whatsoever.
One Nation, Indivisible
Eight years later, as we come full circle with President Obama to bid him and his family farewell from the national stage, at least for now, it seems fitting to recall everything he and they have done for us since that night in August 2008 when he accepted the nomination to become our president.
It also seems fitting to us to remember the kindness and concern we experienced that same long evening from the Arab American Muslim immigrant family who helped us reach our destination without serious incident.
Especially now, when dark voices are raising the specters of fear and hatred, greed and incompetence, it is vital that we seek out and recall the better angels of our nature.
As Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang the words of Woody Guthrie for the new president and his family eight years ago at the “We Are One” concert on the eve of President Obama’s first inauguration, “This land is your land, this land is my land; this land was made for you and me.”
Editor’s Note: I originally wrote most of this post just before election eve in 2016, but since the results came in that night, I have not had the stomach to finish it. I’ve waited for the “right time,” but that just never seems to come. Like many Americans, I’m encouraged by the strength and persistence of the resistance to the cruelty and evil that has overtaken our nation, and I’m optimistic about the fact that people of all political persuasions are appalled by it, and are finally talking to each other about our shared values and common cause as Americans. However, the fight for dignity and respect for all people in our country and beyond is far from over. As we celebrate the 241st anniversary of America’s Independence this weekend, we hope that remembering Barack Obama’s achievements, his stamina and resolve in the face of lies and personal attacks, and his resilience in defending our shared American virtues, will help us see this fight through to its bitter end, no matter how ugly it becomes, or how difficult it might be.