I started the year in a particularly American sort of ruin, a set of neo-Classical columns discarded by the architects of the U.S. Capitol and reborn as a starkly beautiful attraction in a snowy, wind-swept D.C. park. I am ending it in another, on the other side of the country, beneath sunny skies and palm trees amid the glittering clutter of Las Vegas.
It’s called the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor lot where the flashy metal icons of the Vegas Strip come to die. But it is not exactly death – here, massive neon signs that once stood tall atop hotels and casinos are preserved, even refurbished. They are the lucky ones; so many others have not been salvaged, but destroyed in televised implosions or otherwise lost.
You cannot enter this part of the Neon Museum on your own, and so I join a tour and shuffle along a path between towering piles of signs with a group of people who are (I assume) far more interested in the history of this city, its personalities and proclivities, than I am. I have never had any interest in Vegas’s gambling or glitz, but I am drawn to these neon ghosts, because even without the information-packed narration from the guide, they tell you all you need to know.
We are a nation that wants to be lucky, we want quick money and instant love. We thrive on the transience of hotels and motels and highways, incorporating and appropriating whatever culture will entertain or enrich or distract us until we’re bored and move on. We are childlike, attracted to the brightest and the biggest things, but our vices are deadly and our potential for accomplishment is boundless. We build cities in deserts and swamps and the middles of nowheres, believing they’ll be great successes, and sometimes they are. We drive happily along two-lane roads for days and days, guided by promises on billboards, the flashier the better. We believe we will end up somewhere safe, that everything will be fine, that the future will be brighter than the stars – and when it’s not, we risk it all to start over.
It was there in the columns rising from the snowy meadow in January, and it’s there in the relics of the Golden Nugget and the Tropicana Mobil Park and the Stardust Resort and Casino, now lying humbled in the sand.
I didn’t reach my goal of traveling to every state this year. I only got to 32. (There are now six U.S. states I’ve never been to at all, and that I now want to see more than ever.) Thankfully, what limited my travels was simply lack of money and lack of time. Some of what I feared might stop me, like travel bans on certain kinds of people or violent mobs of Nazis in the streets, did come to pass. But through luck and timing, they did not personally affect me; I should say, they have not personally affected me yet.
When I took my first trip twelve months ago, I was afraid, both for the fate of America and my own place in it. I am just as afraid now, perhaps more so, though in slightly different ways. I am still profoundly uneasy on a daily basis, but now I also fear for the long-term; it is difficult to imagine a future that isn’t terribly bleak. But my only moments of hope this year, and of happiness, have come from what I’ve seen on the back-roads and street corners and open expanses of America. I am grateful to have seen so much of my country, and I still hope that I will be able to see more of it in the future. I hope, too, that anyone else who wants to travel here will be free to do so as well.
I didn’t know what I would find when I started this project. I had driven around the country before, in what then seemed like politically and culturally dangerous moments. But this, as I sensed and many people older and more knowledgeable than I kept saying, was different. What would it be like to see America in an unprecedented type of crisis? I found, to my surprise, that I was seeing the same country I had always known. It was alternately comforting and disconcerting to see so few signs of disruption and so few people doing anything outside of the ordinary. It also shone a bright spotlight on how inadequate most media coverage of this country has been since the 2016 election. I am sure, in many towns I stopped in this year, that if I’d whipped out a notebook and asked random diner patrons how they felt about some trending issue, I could have recorded vile, ignorant, shocking quotes that would have gotten more clicks than these little posts about my lonely wanderings. If I had done that, written that, it might have been accurate. But it wouldn’t have been the truth. And the truth is what I want in this age of lies.
Here is one thing that’s true, that I saw this year. America is already great precisely for all the reasons our unthinkable president wants to destroy it: its grand and troubled history, its diversity of people and landscapes, its vast wild places, the promises it has made that so many of its people still hope to extend to all.
Here is another. America was built by people who believed impossible things. They looked at foreboding mountains and built roads across them. They forded the widest rivers and then spanned them with bridges. They constructed municipal buildings and hotels in backwaters and boomtowns that look like gilded masterpieces fit for great cities. They came from far away and learned to survive, whether they chose to or not; or they came from right here and fought for their right to remain. In every state in this nation you can see their improbable triumphs, just as you can see the scars of war and injustice and greed. You can see, in brief flashes in this time of darkness, the possibilities that America represented to so many of those who came before.
I tour the Neon Museum during the day, when the giant lights are turned off. But they are also open at night, when, the guide says, some of the signs are lit up. They don’t turn them all on, though – they wouldn’t even if they could – because the lights are meant to be seen from far away. Close up, clustered together, they would be overwhelming; the glare of what America once was and once believed it could become would blind you.