Crossing America postscript: The road behind us
Seattle Times staff reporter
Did you know that if you drive 85 mph across Texas, west to east on I-10, it takes 10½ hours without bathroom breaks, and that for a long stretch of road you can look to your right and see Mexico, a place almost touchable yet so far removed from the life Americans live so routinely?
Stray facts, fleeting abstractions. We picked up a lot of these on our second road trip across America. In three weeks, we crossed 13 states and sliced through corners of six more on our way to the hallowed ground at Ground Zero.
Some of the most memorable people we met, like those facts, never made it into our dispatches. They didn't qualify in the narrow sense that journalists define as newsworthy. Yet collectively and in hindsight, some of these very ordinary people made up perhaps the most extraordinary post-Sept. 11 story:
There is an invisible new goodness in the land.
It's as if the new vulnerability has encouraged a shift from "live for the moment" to "live for the other." Consider it a mobilization of the national heart, without the bureaucrats. It is an interior thing, happening independently among random individuals. It manifests in subtle, mostly small, private acts not meant to attract attention, not easily measured by pollsters.
Jim Kemp of Lakeland, Fla., for example, gives away groupers. Some of you might recall Kemp's father-in-law, Julian "Jake" Calhoun, the old veteran at the Alamo, the man in beige who was not in a good mood the day we met. Before Jake came along, we were talking with Kemp, a handsome, sun-bronzed man of 61, sitting in the shade of a pecan tree.
Kemp is semi-retired and spends as many days as possible trolling the Atlantic with rod and reel. He catches mostly tuna, red snapper and grouper. For those who don't know, a grouper looks like a perch on steroids. They can grow to 800 pounds, and in some countries are considered prime delicacies.
Instead of freezing or selling his catch, Kemp now gives most of it away to people in his hometown, people "with less means." Some are friends and neighbors, some are strangers. It's food on the table for those who might not otherwise have much.
"It's only been since September 11," Kemp says, curious that anyone would be interested. "I guess you just want to help people more. Give more. I know a lot of people doing stuff. It's not a big deal."
A blanket of kindness
In the plateau country of Northern Arizona, we met a 62-year-old Navajo woman named Zonnie Jones. Like her sister-in-law, Rose Yazzie, whom we wrote about, Jones lives a simple, self-sustaining life tending sheep. She has rarely left the reservation. At her age, she says, she no longer has "the big ambition."
She speaks through a translator, her husband, John.
When a passer-by, an outsider, expresses admiration for one of her wool blankets, she hands it to him. The man, surprised and delighted, gives her, as gesture more than compensation, every dollar in his wallet, which did not amount to much.
She accepts out of politeness.
"The war outside," she says. "The airplanes."
She knows about "the war" through TV, though she doesn't understand a word that all those beautiful anchors say, and keep saying forever and ever, round the clock. Jones has been "giving away" blankets "since it all started."
We met a pretty blonde waitress in Yakima, Gina Smoot, whose 34th birthday fell on Sept. 11. We met a gregarious black bartender, Richard Stephens, in New Orleans who could hardly keep up with the gay patrons who invaded the city in an event called "Southern Decadence."
Both waitress and bartender, just about a continent apart, this year did what many parents talk about but only a few actually do: They cut back on their work hours to spend more time with their kids. It meant less money, of course, but more connection where it mattered.
"You never know what can happen," says Stephens. "You never know when you can go."
On and on. You get the picture. The nation brims with people like Smoot and Stephens, like Jones and Kemp. Some of the most raggedy characters we encountered showed kindness where it mattered least in the grand scheme.
Every morning outside the Starbucks near our hotel in Times Square, an old, diminutive, almost primitive looking woman in a blue house dress and thick wool socks bought a bagel and fed the pigeons in the street. She completely ignored adults. But when a child would stare, she would wink and smile.
On the paper bag she carried was a small, curled ribbon commemorating the first anniversary of Sept. 11.
Of course, some of this quiet goodness we're alleging is indeed measurable. Studies have shown stunning increases in the levels of volunteerism in the land. Interest in the Peace Corps, for one, has risen as much as 300 percent since the terrorist attacks and President Bush's subsequent call to service.
It's one of the stock responses among theologians and philosophers who must address that eternal question of suffering in the world, that great evil brings out the best in human beings.
There have been other great evils this year that may have played a role in the resurgence of kindness. Evil that has nothing to do with terrorism or that malevolent global Axis.
The vanished children
All along our journey, through the 19 states we crossed or touched, in restaurants and gas stations, at Wal-Marts and rest stops along the highway, we came across pictures of children, mostly young girls, abducted or missing.
It has been the summer of savage abductions. From coast to coast, pictures of young girls, some of them mere toddlers, smile from these posters that evoke only the deepest kind of dread.
In Yakima, the waitress Smoot told us that, besides Sept. 11, the other reason she decided to spend more time with her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter was that she did not want to leave their side for fear they would be taken.
"You have to be more protective," she says.
Inside a Pizza Hut in a hideaway town called Hillsville, Va., the walls were plastered with "Missing Child" posters of a girl named Jennifer Renee Short, age 9, with brown hair and brown eyes. She is 4-foot-3 and has been missing since both of her parents were found dead in their home, not far from here, on Aug. 15.
"We don't know what to hope," says one of the pizza chefs, who is missing a front tooth. "We don't know what's happening to her; she might be better off dead than alive."
In a dusty little town called Deming, in south-central New Mexico, Cheri and Marty Levy have been following the news: on the abductions, on the troubles of Enron and Martha Stewart, on the impending invasion of Iraq.
The Levys are up on everything; it's their business. They own and run the Teapot Dome Bookstore, the closet thing Deming has to an Elliott Bay Book Co. It is a bookstore and newsstand, espresso bar, gift shop and gathering place for local literati.
The Levys are in their 60s, retired. They run the bookstore out of pure whimsy. It was something they had always wanted to do, and here they were, in the desert, doing it.
Deming is a good place to view the world from afar. It is as hot as a baked stone, separated by spirit and geography from the machinations of Washington, D.C., and the pain of New York City and its 16-acre gouge.
The town is only a 45-minute drive from Mexico, that foreign kingdom so near, and so much more like the rest of the world, still poor and struggling.
"All that stuff happening there (on the East Coast) made us grateful that we're here," says Marty Levy, a former machinist and an old hippie. His long, gray ponytail still swings free.
Center of darkness
It was the Levys that told us about the place near here said to be one of the darkest spots on Earth. Who knows if it's true; it is part of the region's folklore.
The place has no name. It is just a rough spot of ground that geologists and astronomy buffs have determined — because of its topography and location under the stars and its distance from any town with lights — to be a place where the nights are blacker than almost anywhere else.
You can sit there at a certain point in the night and see a shade of darkness that might give you a sense of what eternal sleep might be like.
But one thing about this place in south-central New Mexico, this arid spot most of you will never visit so you'll have to take our word for it: At the end of the darkest night, the sun rises and floods the land with so much light that you'll be forced to don your darkest Ray-Bans. And still you might squint.
There's an invisible goodness in the land, and there are things to be done in this new day.
Alex Tizon: 206-464-2216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Berner: 206-464-8133 or email@example.com.
Seattle Times researchers Sandy Freeman, Leah Cushman and Cheryl Morningstar contributed to these reports.
This is the 11th and final installment of "Crossing America: One Year Later." For previous stories, photo galleries and audio, or to read last year's series, go to www.seattletimes.com/crossingamerica.