The idea came to us about a year and a half ago, while Addie and I were staying in Guanajuato, Mexico. We realized we felt more closely connected to what was happening in Mexico, where we were walking for hours every day, watching and learning, than we felt to the United States, news of which reached us only once filtered through any number of sources. It seemed ridiculous that, having only been gone six weeks, the country in which we’d spent nearly our entire lives could seem so far away. So we developed a plan—partially inspired by millennials using the “vanlife” hashtag to promote products (or themselves) on Instagram, partially inspired by the long American tradition of road tripping—to find America. We decided that when we returned to the US, we would buy a discreet van, and set it up to serve as a ready-made place to camp, a mobile storage unit, and a form of transportation to bring us to the most distant corners of the country. Well, we eventually made it back home and found a bigger gap than ever between what people were talking about and our experiences, so we pursued our project with renewed excitement. We’re finally finished with the preparations: we left today, and we’ll be living out of this van for the foreseeable future.
What makes America great? Everyone has an opinion these days, few of them seem honest, fewer seem all that informed. More often than not, the root of the answer most people give seems to be, more or less, “me.” So America looks pretty pathetic these days, no matter what source you consult, no matter what bubble you live in. Though the social and psychological forces that have created today’s fragmented nation are outside the scope of this project, the important thing is: no matter who is talking about America, what they are saying doesn’t quite match our personal experience of America. Television and social media seem nearly exclusively stocked with the indignant, the injured, the fearful, the proudly close-minded, but not the grocery store. Not the gas station. Not the barber shop. It’s a much more diverse (and interesting) picture out there. It’s not that there aren’t far too many terrible problems here (America has many, many issues that must be addressed head on, without any hedging language like “it’s not all that bad.”), it’s that these problems are not all there is, and focusing exclusively on these problems threatens to undermine the reason these problems must be addressed: America, as an idea, has so much potential. So we’re taking the van out to explore, to find places where that potential is quietly being realized, to find things that don’t make it out into the public sphere because they don’t catch enough attention, they don’t go viral, they don’t sell enough ads. These things are what really make America great: the actions people take out of compassion, the things people build out of inspiration, the places we create by living together.
Everything one can see from a fixed position is doomed to offer, at best, a limited, if not contradictory, representation. It’s a matter of perspective: you have to move to really sense depth and variation. We’re as curious as ever, so we’re going to move, to talk to people, to live with people. We’re going practice what we preach about being open minded and listen for a damn minute to what others have to say, and we’re not going to allow what anyone says about anyone else to stop us or shape our understanding. After all, who’s in charge here? It’s not the president, it’s no political party, and it’s not the media either. It’s us (the wider American us), and us two (the specific Martin us), who have decided to take charge of at least our own understanding of the country.
Addie and I know that few people can undertake such an big and exciting journey. We are very fortunate. Still, we hope that everyone in America can find a way to do their own little piece to discover the country they’ve forgotten, or have never known in the first place, and strengthen it. Meet your neighbors, make eye contact in the grocery store and smile, expand your understanding of life beyond your own limited experience by being open to others’ experiences. Instead of imagining yourself alone, at war with everything that is apart from you, imagine yourself as a small but indispensable part of some bigger project so vast and complex it cannot be captured in a hashtag, headline, or campaign slogan. Nobody is perfect, people are contradictory and difficult, and that goes for countries too. America is the sum of every last one of its parts, the sum of every word and action, every attitude, every choice, and every dream. The America that is being putting out there is definitely not great, and it’s in some people’s interests that it appear that way forever. However, we believe the America we all live in is a sleeping giant, and what it needs to be awakened is not a violent, unifying Pearl Harbor, but a quiet revolution that finally accepts how big, how different, how great “we” (the biggest we possible) all are together, and that can only be accomplished one open word at a time.
Looking forward to meeting all y’all and being inspired.