It’s a summer weekend several decades ago, and my dad is seeking company for his customary Sunday activity: a drive in the country. As usual, I am the only taker. Sometimes we look at houses, occasionally we explore new areas, but most of the time we just drive out into the country and admire the rustic fences, the barns, the crops, and above it all, the sweeping sky. We chat or we don’t, and we inevitably end up at a Dairy Queen for a twist cone at the end of the day. These yawning days are among my favorite childhood memories.
Flash forward, and there is still something about an unscheduled Sunday that cries out for a jaunt in the car. Yesterday I answered the call, and we loaded the vehicle with the dog, some water, and a few snacks, and headed northwest from Houston to enjoy a spectacular spring day on the road.
Our destination is the perfect distance away (less than two hours) and has an additional attraction; a town called Bryan, Texas, named after my distant relative, William Jennings Bryan. Three-time presidential candidate (and perpetual loser), secretary of state, famed orator, and attorney both admired and ridiculed, Bryan is a direct ancestor on my father’s side of the family. Hailing from Illinois originally, but a long-time resident of Nebraska (where my grandfather was born), Bryan somehow left his mark quite deeply in Texas, where he owned a winter home and farm.
The journey itself ends up being the enchantment. The sky is a blue bed of white puffballs, and the early crops are a cheerful lemon-green. Rural fences always rope me in, and today is no exception. We see white pickets, split rails, and dark wood dividers on both sides of the road. We get off the main highway as often as possible and keep swerving off onto the berm to photograph the ranch gates, both simple and elaborate, along the way. We follow the web of farm-to-market (FM) routes, observing the network of roads that physically connect rural America to our large cities.
My husband eats a Texas-sized beef brisket sandwich at a popular BBQ joint at 11 am, halfway through the drive out, and is still sated when we arrive home in the late afternoon. We stop at a famous rest stop/gas station to fuel up at bargain prices and peruse the outlandish array of paraphernalia available there, from fresh fudge to hot dogs, homemade kolaches to every bag snack you’ve ever heard of, stuffed animals to camouflage gear, and the “cleanest restrooms in America.”
The historic town of Bryan is closed down on this Sunday afternoon, which is fitting given William Jennings’ religious bent later in life. We wander through the downtown streets for a few blocks anyway and then load the old pooch back in the car and retrace our route back to the big city.
We’ve accomplished little, but we’ve temporarily cleared our heads in all that fresh air and sprawling land. Unfortunately, mine is now spinning with thoughts, reflecting on presidents and populations, of byways and barriers. This is what most of America looks like geographically, even as the majority of our population moves into urban environments.
In Bryan’s day and our recent past, this dichotomy did not seriously threaten our cohesion as a nation; in fact, those FM roads connected more than just farmers and our city tables. But now our differences, the other kinds of fences we have put up at home and around the world, have helped to create the calamity of our current leadership.
While I was piloting and pondering, France was rejecting a vision of the world where a nation can only house one type of person, where only the market-makers matter, and where outside interference can amplify those differences and scare people into a frightening, reactionary decision. We were not so careful or clear-headed here, but my hope is that the strong French results will somehow nudge the world back onto the kind of road that connects rather than divides.