By Dan Barry
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If I’m in Illinois, the rental is from Texas; if I’m in Texas, it is Wyoming; if I’m in Wyoming, Florida. The license plate alone marks me as someone not from here, wherever here is. And yet here I am.
In a small sedan considered mid-size only in Avis-speak, I adjust the mirrors and the driver’s seat to fit my lanky, question-mark frame. I make musical scat of the syndicated radio provocateurs before choosing a local station on the inferior AM bandwidth, where every sound seems to pass through the filter of an indefinable past. Depending on mood and place, I might absorb the aching wails of Hank Williams, the fire-next-time portents of some storefront preacher, or the folksy reassurance of an avuncular DJ who once was God in times of weather-related school closings.
With any luck I might find a program called Tradio, or Swap Shop, through which callers engage in a sort of on-air eBay. Once, while driving through West Virginia, I heard a woman announce that she was looking to sell a house, 16 acres, a bowling ball, and a sequin dress slit up the side.
Seat; check. Mirrors; check. Radio; check. The steering wheel carries the trace of drivers before me, their commingled scent on the wheel and now on my palms, faintly, until I reach the hotel. Have I booked a hotel? This is a serious matter. I have slept on the floors of airports; in condemnation-worthy motels with scorched electrical outlets; in a bed-and-breakfast whose proprietor offered the use of her absent husband’s bathrobe, hanging there on a treadmill; in an unsupervised, nearly deserted Old West hotel haunted by Molly, a maid who ended it all with poison and alcohol a century ago.
I usually wind up in the soothing sameness of a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express, places I recommend for their pliant pillows and welcome absence of any personal touch. They are also often within walking distance of a roadside chain restaurant, where I can consider the angles of the story before me while drinking table wine and eating freshly nuked salmon.
And now I am driving away from the city, along an interstate that leads to a secondary road that leads to a tertiary road that might very well be unpaved, my lunch some truck-stop trail mix washed down with a Coke. In more than a decade, I have been pulled over only twice: once on a remote road along the Mexican border, by a deputy sheriff who didn’t recognize the car and wanted reassurance that I wasn’t smuggling undocumented immigrants; and once in Kansas, because I was speeding while singing backup for the Moody Blues on “Nights in White Satin.” I accepted the ticket I so richly deserved—for singing, if not for speeding—and dutifully signaled as I pulled away.
Where I was headed then is so different from where I am headed now, no matter the dulling uniformity of the rental cars and hotels and chain restaurants. I am driving and driving to some American somewhere, confident only in the revelations that await.
The idea was mad, farcical, quixotic, so I agreed to do it.
For the last three years I had been happily roaming Gotham while writing a twice-weekly column for The New York Times called “About New York.” But a temporary assignment to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had given me a glimpse of the larger American story. I chronicled the Gulf Coast communities immersed in mucky black waters; the roads scarred by the hulls of ships storm-muscled onto land; the telltale markings on shotgun-house doors, indicating date of search and number of bodies found. (I had seen these somber symbols before, on Lower Manhattan brick and steel.)
A defining moment came when The Times photographer Nicole Bengiveno and I spotted a dead body on a downtown New Orleans street, its feet jutting from a wet blue tarp surrounded by traffic cones. We watched as six National Guardsmen strode up to the corpse. Two blessed themselves, one took a snapshot, and all walked away.
Shaken by what we had seen, Nicole and I drove on to record other dystopian moments under the hot September sun. With the body still there when we returned in the evening, I reported the situation to a Louisiana state trooper. He explained that he was the one who had placed those traffic cones around the body—to keep some news truck from running over it.
The next morning, the corpse still lay on the pavement, where it would remain through another hot day and into the dusk of another curfew. How could a corpse be left to decompose, like carrion, on a downtown street in a major American city? Would this dead black son of New Orleans have been left there for days if he had been white? Hunched over my laptop in the rental car, I wrote what I saw, and felt.
This was the moment that sparked the idea of a wandering national column. Mad, farcical, quixotic: Let’s do it.
Over a few drinks, a couple of national editors and I struck upon the name of this proposed column: “This Land.” I’d been raised on the words and music of Woody Guthrie—mostly through the muse of Pete Seeger, a secular saint in my boyhood home—and was perhaps a bit too proud that I knew the lesser-known lyrics to Guthrie’s subversive masterwork, “This Land Is Your Land.” You know, about the other side of that No Trespassing sign saying nothing—that side that “was made for you and me.”
So began more than a decade on the other side of that sign. Spurred by curiosity and, occasionally, the news, I have crisscrossed the country in a mostly whimsical endeavor that started toward the end of the presidency of Bush the Younger, spanned the entirety of Obama’s eight-year presidency, and has dipped now into the startling era of Trump. The many dozens of columns I’ve written, some of which are included in this collection, have explored American moments small and profound, fleeting and enduring: columns about a county fair bake-off in Marquette, Michigan, and a bullet fired through the living room window of a black mayor in Greenwood, Louisiana; about the larger meaning of a knocked-down telephone booth in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, and the economic struggles of a dairy farmer in Ferndale, California; about a gathering of a group of retired burlesque queens in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the execution by electric chair of a man in Nashville, Tennessee—a death I witnessed. Filed from every one of the 50 states, these stand-alone dispatches also fit together, jigsaw-like, into an epic larger than their individual selves.
But when combined, what were they telling me?
What was The Story?
In my travels, I am rarely alone and thank God for that, since I find myself to be miserable company. Sometimes I am with Todd Heisler, a revered Times photographer who covers wars and parades with the same intense dedication of purpose, or Kassie Bracken, an exceptional Times videographer with a flair for visual storytelling. Often the person beside me is Nicole Bengiveno, whose empathy is evident with every click of her camera, and who deserves national commendation for having put up with my road-weary crankiness. But the first photographer to work with me on “This Land” was Ángel Franco, of Harlem and the Bronx, whose mild learning issue as a child was misdiagnosed as intellectual disability. Having never forgotten the stigma, he has used his photography ever since to dignify the lives of the misunderstood, the disenfranchised, the underestimated.
For our inaugural column, in January 2007, Franco and I went to Logan, a small West Virginia city grappling with a fatal mine disaster and the decline of King Coal. At first we did nothing more than walk the quiet streets, noticing: the coal train snaking and squealing through the city’s core; the ashen dust settling on buildings along the tracks; the shop-window display featuring a Jesus Christ figurine carved from anthracite. Just—noticing.
In trying to file a column a week in those first years, our adventures would often begin Monday morning at Newark International Airport and end on Friday, or Saturday, even Sunday, with frantic efforts to figure out where to go next. Louisiana? Montana? Maine? Helping to ease the madness of this misbegotten venture was our colleague Cate Doty, who often handled everything from story ideas and travel logistics to dinner recommendations.
Kalispell, Montana. Lake Mead, Nevada. Ainsworth, Nebraska. Newport, Indiana. Pascagoula, Mississippi. Greensburg, Kansas. Hollywood, Maryland. Sylva, North Carolina. The datelines blur into one.
We went to a retirement home in Jacksonville, Florida, to visit the coroner in The Wizard of Oz. To Havana, Illinois, to report on the Asian carp infesting the Illinois River. To Kalaupapa, Hawaii, to meet the last residents of a colony to which those with Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) were once relegated. To Bethel, Alaska, to explore the cat-and-mouse games of bootleggers. To Bill, Wyoming—population 5, maybe—to stay in a new hotel catering to railway workers. To Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, to meet the pastor who baptized Jeffrey Dahmer in a prison whirlpool. To Denver, to cover the annual convention of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, where I felt oddly at home.
I often had no idea what the next column would be. One Saturday morning, while scanning online newspapers for ideas, I noticed a community news item about a farewell breakfast in a V.F.W. hall in Mohave Valley, Arizona, for a high school graduate named Resha Kane. After the meal, she was to be taken by motorcycle escort to Las Vegas, to catch a flight to Fort Hood, where she would begin her Army career in exchange for college tuition.
I called Franco, who, of course, got it immediately. We flew out the next day, and were present for the send-off of Ms. Kane, who looked much younger than her 18 years. Franco’s memorable photograph of this small young woman in fatigues, gazing up at her father while saying goodbye—the fear of her unknown, of ours, expressed in her eyes—hangs in the newsroom.
Here was a part of The Story, no? Touched by geopolitical forces far removed from this remote corner of southwest Arizona, an 18-year-old girl-woman was leaving family and home to give her service and perhaps her life to her country. To represent and defend the Odd Fellows and their wives, those railroad workers in Wyoming, that prison pastor in Wisconsin, the coroner of Munchkinland. Franco. Me.
Given our fractured and fractious times, you could argue that this country has no center; that what exists instead is an ever-widening chasm between the reds and blues, the haves and have-nots, the rural and urban, us and them. At times it seems as though the United States of America is less one country than a collection of distinctly different countries, connected more by geographic happenstance than by a shared embrace of ideals.
In the days and weeks after the 2016 election, the pundits who inhabit cable television spoke often of no longer recognizing their own country. Some of them could not imagine who out there, beyond the hushed confines of a television studio in Manhattan or Washington or Atlanta, would ever dream of electing yet another professional politician, particularly one with the surname of Clinton? Others could not abide the notion of voting for a real-estate developer and reality-television star who trafficked in race-tinged conspiracy theories, misogyny, and the celebration of the Trump brand.
But as I traveled the country for a decade, from 2007 to 2017, politics rarely entered my mind. With no campaign events to attend, no polling data to interpret, I lingered and listened, following the advice of Tom Heslin, a good friend and my editor long ago at the Providence Journal, who told me once:
Slow it down.
The men and women I encountered were not numbers to be tallied in yet another political survey; they were individuals, trying to get through another day in America. By slowing it down, I witnessed their wills being tested by crime, by fates, by natural disaster. I watched them struggle and tumble, laugh and cry, pause to take a breath or whisper a prayer. To echo Faulkner, I saw them endure. And that is what, I think, this volume of columns and stories conveys: the American endurance that transcends politics, and is ever-present no matter the presidential era.
If a tornado tears through our city, we clean up. If a new highway bypasses our town, we erect a roadside monument to declare our defiant continuance. If society mistakenly relegates us to sheltered workshops and group homes, we learn to drive. If the Mississippi threatens once again to overflow its banks, we work side-by-side to erect a sandbag wall. And if racists burn down our church, we rebuild.
For me, it all goes back to that first visit for that first column—to Logan, West Virginia.
After Franco and I had taken our maiden walk down the streets of this distressed coal town—after we had dodged the coal train and reflected before that anthracite Jesus—we went in search of a late lunch or early dinner. We slid into a booth in a narrow, downtown diner and studied what was left of the daily specials.
The waitress, smiling through her late-day weariness, pulled out her pad, poised her pen in anticipation, and asked the eternal question:
“Are we ready yet, children?”
After the ball is over, after the break of dawn
A Way of Life, Seen Through Coal-Tinted Glasses
LOGAN, W.VA.—JANUARY 14, 2007
That daily reminder of coal’s dominion courses again through this small town of a city, stopping traffic, giving pause. It is a coal train, maybe 90 open cars long, creaking and groaning and coating the old brick buildings hard against the tracks with a fine, black dust.
And as a cold dusk settles like more dust on Logan’s tired streets, Chuck Gunnoe sits in an unheated launderette and explains how coal runs through veins beyond those in the surrounding hills. He is a coal miner seeking work, and he yearns to have his boots muddied, his face blackened—to be swallowed again by the Appalachian earth.
The mines received him two days after he turned 18. Now 24, and between mines, he takes pride in doing the same crazy-dangerous work that his grandfather did. But the primary draw has always been the money, and with his girlfriend two months pregnant, he says he needs the $20 an hour he can earn by toiling miles removed from natural light.
“It’s the best-paying job in this state,” says Mr. Gunnoe, who hours earlier filled out an application with a local mine. “Unless you’re college-educated.”
And yes, he knows, the burly man says softly. He knows what happened to the two miners in the Aracoma coal mine not five miles down the road. Who here doesn’t.
Downtown Logan has changed a lot, its people say, for so many reasons: the mechanization of mining, leading to fewer jobs; many young people seeking opportunity elsewhere; a Walmart replacing a nearby mountaintop. A walk down once-bustling Stratton Street, past the closed Capitol movie theater, the closed City Florist, the closed G. C. Murphy dime store, can be a walk through stillness.
But in certain profound ways, Logan has not changed at all, and not just because warm apple pies sell for $5.99 at the Nu-Era Bakery, or because the waitress at Yesterday’s Diner refills coffee cups with maternal affection. (“Are we ready yet, children?”)
For one, the city of 1,600 remains the West Virginia template for public corruption, with election fraud a local specialty. Not long ago, investigators caught the former mayor in some wrongdoing, and soon he was wearing a wire; down went the police chief, the county sheriff and the county clerk, among others. Now the former mayor sits behind the large glass window of his law office on Stratton Street, disbarred, on probation, on display.
For another, Logan remains the coal-field capital. This means that a figurine made of coal in a pawnshop window depicts Jesus comforting a miner. It means that schoolchildren learn about the 1921 armed uprising called the Battle of Blair Mountain, when more than 10,000 miners wanting to unionize squared off against state and federal troops. That you are a friend of coal, or you are not. That miners die.
Almost exactly a year ago, a fire broke out in that nonunion mine down the road, the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1, owned by the state’s dominant coal company, Massey Energy. Every employee escaped, save two: Don Israel Bragg, 33, and Elvis Hatfield, 46.
Months later, two reports—one by the state’s mining-regulatory office, the other by J. Davitt McAteer, a veteran mine-safety consultant—shed light on what had happened in the Aracoma darkness. In Mr. McAteer’s words, the evidence suggested that the fire had “erupted at the lethal intersection of human error and negligent mining practices.”
A misaligned conveyor belt ignited and spilled coal that should not have been there. A fire hose contained no water. A missing ventilation wall allowed smoke to seep into a primary escapeway meant to provide fresh air to miners.
A crew of a dozen escaping miners hit that smoke and began to panic. In blinding, nauseating clouds of black, they grabbed one another’s shirts and tried to feel their way to a door leading to fresh air. Ten made it to the other side; two did not.
One more thing, the reports said: the maps of the mazelike mine given to the would-be rescuers were inaccurate—a cardinal sin in the land of coal.
The deaths of Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield provided an unnecessary reminder of how dangerous coal mining can be. In all, 24 miners died on the job in West Virginia last year, with this year’s first fatalities coming on Saturday, when two miners died in a partial tunnel collapse inside a mine about 75 miles south of here.
Massey Energy, which employs more than 4,000 in West Virginia, has declined detailed comment about the two reports, other than to say that some conditions in the mine had not met its standards, and that “deficiencies were not fully recognized by mine personnel or by state or federal inspectors.”
Few in Logan criticize Massey publicly. The closest they come is to say that the widows have sued, and to smile when recalling how the company’s president, Don L. Blankenship, spent more than $3 million trying to wrest control of the Legislature from Democrats last year. He called it his “And for the Sake of the Kids” campaign, and he lost.
Instead, people like the mayor, Claude Ellis, known as Big Daddy, point out that Massey gives a big employee party in the center of the city every summer, attracting tens of thousands. Last year people had to wear a company-issued T-shirt to hear Hank Williams Jr. and other entertainers sing. Mr. Ellis says the company gave him 100 or so of those shirts.
“Without coal, we’d be in a bad state,” Mr. Ellis explains, as if to concede that coal is the true Big Daddy.
Back in the cold of that launderette, Mr. Gunnoe proudly displays photographs of himself in the mines: on his knees, unable to stand, soot-covered, one with coal. In one photo, he and other miners are hunched around pizza boxes. Christmas present from the boss, he explains.
A Teenage Soldier’s Goodbyes on the Road to Over There
MOHAVE VALLEY, ARIZ.—MARCH 4, 2007
It is time. The fresh young soldier has a plane to catch.
People file out of the dimness of V.F.W. Post 404 and into the morning light. They chat and smoke and mill about on the parking lot gravel, then come together to form a ragged circle of support.
The dozen motorcyclists among them finalize plans to escort the soldier for most of the two-hour ride to the airport in Las Vegas. Just before raising voices and fists to a recording of the country-western anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the crowd bows its collective head and asks God for another favor: to keep safe this soldier, just 10 months removed from her senior prom.
That night she wore a gown the color of valentines; this morning she wears fatigues the color of mud. The uniform has a name patch, KANE, for Pvt. Resha Kane. Eighteen years old and five feet tall. Of Needles High School, Class of 2006, and, lately, of the United States Army, Fourth Infantry Division.
Earlier this morning, Private Kane walked out of her family home in Needles, a small railroad city in California just across the Colorado River. Before her, the family van, packed with two Army duffel bags. Behind her, a living room decorated with family portraits and a large mock check from her current employer.
“Reserved in the name of Resha Kane,” the check reads, $37,200 from the Army College Fund and the Montgomery G.I. Bill. It represents her partial compensation for enlisting for three years and 22 weeks. She plans to study biochemistry someday.
At the moment, though, she stands outside this club for veterans of foreign wars, where a bar sign advertises Sunday bloody marys, a buck apiece, 10 to noon. Former soldiers tell her to keep her nose clean over there. Her father, Wesley Kane, has to leave soon for his job as a car dealership’s lot manager, but he holds her tight and asks, again and again, do you know how to clean your weapon?
“Yes, Daddy,” she says.
The motorcyclists, including some from a group called the Patriot Guard Riders, mount their bikes. Among them is Rich Poliska, a gray-bearded Air Force veteran who lives nearby, in Bullhead City. A Route 66 earring dangles from his left earlobe.
Several months ago Mr. Poliska and his daughter, Heather Ching, heard about a local soldier who had returned from Iraq to no welcome home. They decided to form the Bullhead Patriots, dedicated to honoring soldiers going off to war, or returning from it. This is the group’s first deployment effort, he says. “But I’ve done six funerals and two homecomings.”
The Bullhead Patriots had heard of Private Kane’s imminent deployment from a veteran who knows a woman who works at the Family Dollar store with the soldier’s mother, Patricia Kane. First a surprise potluck supper—the soldier left church on Sunday to find a limousine waiting to whisk her away to the V.F.W.—and now this: an escort to the airport.
Bike engines growl, signaling that it is time. Private Kane climbs into the family van, which features rear-window decals for Jesus and for the Army (“My Daughter Is Serving”). She sits in the back, surrounded by her three younger siblings and a sister’s boyfriend. Her quiet mother takes the driver’s seat.
Soon the caravan is crossing the Colorado River. It passes a man sitting on the back of a parked pickup, his fist raised in the air: the soldier’s father.
This mobile honor guard continues on, heading north on Highway 95, into a desolate, arid stretch of southern Nevada. Motorcycles in front, motorcycles behind, and in the middle, a white van containing a young soldier with just-polished fingernails.
She took care of her siblings while her parents worked, and learned to make a mean baked chicken. She graduated in the upper ranks in a class of about 60. She was honored for her grades and for her abstract artwork of flowers and butterflies. She has yet to learn to drive.
She enlisted in April, the same month as her prom, because she saw the military as a way to further her education. Right after graduation she went through boot camp and some extra training, before coming home a couple of weeks ago to talk up the Army at her alma mater.
“Hometown recruiting,” the Army calls it.
“Everyone knows me there,” Private Kane says of Needles High School, home of the Mustangs.
Now, riding in the midst of this caravan of protection and respect, she is bound for Fort Hood in Texas to await deployment—probably to Iraq, she says.
“Nobody wants to go, but it’s our job,” she said the other day, her tone all business. “That’s what we’re trained for. We’ll go over, do our job and come back.”
The motorcade stops briefly in the old gold-mining town of Searchlight, and a few bikers say goodbye. Then it continues on, across the nothingness, through spits of rain, before stopping again in Railroad Pass, about 20 miles south of the airport. The Bullhead Patriots say farewell to Private Kane.
“Best of luck to you,” Mr. Poliska says.
A lone biker continues to lead the Kanes toward Las Vegas, a large American flag flapping from the rear of his motorcycle. He rumbles into the city of gamblers, past drivers oblivious to the now-common moment of a wartime soldier leaving home.
At the last moment the biker peels off. And the white family van follows the signs that say Departures.
In a Town Called Bill, a Boomlet of Sorts
BILL, WYO.—MARCH 3, 2008
For decades this speck of a place called Bill had one, two or five residents, depending on whether you counted pets. But recent developments have increased the population to at least 11, so that now Bill is more a dot than a speck, and could be justified if one day it started to call itself William.
In mid-December those developments appeared like some Christmas mirage: a 112-room hotel and a 24-hour diner. Here. In Bill. Amid the swallowing nothingness of grasslands, where all that moves are the wind, the antelope, the cars speeding to someplace else—and those ever-slithering trains.
Day and night the trains, each one well more than a mile long, rattling north with dozens of empty cars to the coal mines of the Powder River Basin, then groaning south with thousands of tons of coal. They clink and clank behind the cramped general store and shuttered post office to create the soundtrack of Bill.
But Bill is also a crew-change station for the Union Pacific railroad company, which means that dozens of conductors, engineers and other railroaders on the coal line take their mandatory rest here. Few of them want to be in Bill, but in Bill they must stay. They are its transients, forever lugging their lanterns, gloves and gear.
For many years the railroaders stayed in what they called, without affection, the Bill Hilton, a tired, 58-room dormitory near the rail yard with thin walls and, lately, not enough beds, as the booming coal business has increased the demand for trains. At 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon, bone-tired workers just off their shift would wait for a bed to open up, and then hope for sleep to come.
- "Story to story, this collection of reportage from Dan Barry for The New York Times might appear to be what it is - old journalism. And yet, what is actually here, a decade of stories about crumbling traditions, breaks in trust and flickers of grace, is the most comprehensive single-book portrait of the United States (circa 2007-2016) in a long time. The accumulated power of these pieces - angry, corny, inspiring, mournful and insane - takes on the shape of a salute to durable, keenly observed newspaper writing."—The Chicago Tribune, 10 Best Books of 2018
- "Dan Barry gives dignity even to the darkest corners of the American experience. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Steinbeck."—Colum McCann
- "Dan Barry is an American treasure, and This Land is a beautifully conceived, essential book on American lives and places. His understanding and love of the American experience-small towns, fractured lives, beauty, suffering, and the physical landscape-is unparalleled. I'm grateful to him, and for him, for chronicling our lives, honoring our history and recognizing our connection to each other."—Rosanne Cash
- "This Land reminds us that the greatest strength of the American character is America's characters: men and women who are resilient, gracious, eccentric, world-weary, bright-eyed, funny, complex, tragic, surly and yes, even, kind. Dan Barry proves once again that in his intelligent company, attention paid is its own reward. He assures us, too, that eloquence, wit, and compassion - all the virtues we need now - have not been purged from American discourse and are alive and well in these pages."—Alice McDermott
- "There is something incrementally, and in the end almost infinitely heartbreaking and transformational about Dan Barry's haunting anthology... With a Dickensian breadth of curiosity and compassion, Barry has been determined to shadow and record a decade in the quotidian flow of national life-events that are all the more indelible, mysterious and uncanny for their specificity."—Ric Burns
- "A fine collection of Barry's smooth-as-silk and keenly observed columns for the New York Times. He travels to post-Katrina New Orleans, witnesses an execution in Tennessee, talks with the minister who befriended serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Barry finds beauty in the tragic, the bizarre, the overlooked."—The Star Tribune
- On Sale
- Sep 11, 2018
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal