I am a first generation Japanese immigrant who grew up in the United States. To me, America was never a home but a glorified cultural experiment, in which I was a willing participant. It was a country that I wanted so desperately to embody, but could only ponder as a bystander. This stark sense of voyeurism only intensified as the years went by.
In the summer of 2016, during the months leading up to Donald Trump's election, I embarked on a road trip across the United States in a 1978 Ford Econoline. Spending quality time with multigenerational American natives, I thought, would allow me to feel more American, or at the very least, help me gain a better understanding of the people that I grew up with. It didn't. I have never been more wary to speak, more utterly confused as to what constitutes American identity.
Some road trips offer answers; others raise questions. After being on the road for four months, I have only questions. America prides itself on capitalistic achievements while bullying its citizens with notions of personal accountability. It is a country fractured by race and class, reinforced by a growing population of those who have been written out of the American Dream. In a world of stark indignities, how have its inhabitants qualified dignity?
The following set of images is a perpetual outsider's cataloguing of America. Furthermore, it is an attempt to capture how Americans—much like the terrain they inhabit—have redefined dignity amidst chaos.
Dashboard of the 1978 Ford Econoline van. The letters on the emblem were rearranged to spell "Dorf."
August 20, 2016
Tomorrow morning I head off to see the America that I—after having lived here for over 26 years—have only read about in books. An America that unravels before my eyes under an expansive sky. An America that smells of old leather and desert sage and cheap liquor and cow shit. An America that my immigrant father probably envisioned and secretly yearned for, before settling in suburbia.
I think about a conversation I had with a woman from New Orleans last winter. She gave me a roster of places that I should visit during my upcoming road trip. I asked her if there were any towns where a person of color like me should avoid driving through. She told me that was "quite literally the most ignorant thing she'd ever heard."
But isn't all of Middle America just one giant field full of trailer parks and four-wheeling hillbillies?
Needless to say, I felt stupid.
Sunset over Mt. Rainier, Washington.
Abandoned car at a burn site located just outside of Yakima County, Washington.
Byron with his father's rifle. Jeffrey City, Wyoming.
Palouse Falls, Washington.
August 24, 2016
Yesterday I checked out a burn site just outside of Yakima County. After a short walk around the premises, I returned to find about a thousand flies in the van. Sure enough, I'd left the windows open. This region, despite the arid climate and micro-shrub vegetation, has an impressive insect population. It took about a day and a half to get them all out of the van.
Feeling violated, I pulled into Palouse Falls to take my first "shower." The waterfall can be traced back to the end of the Ice Age when repeated glacial floods carved out deep, gnarled crevasses throughout eastern Washington. Four days into the trip and I've driven through lush cedar forests, arid farm land, yawning canyons. Evidently there is no such thing as a typical American landscape.
As the light turned, the charred basalt cliffs towering 200 feet above me turned ten shades of purple, pink and grey.
Keiko. Hot Springs, Montana.
Storms off the I-287.
Billy. Jeffrey City, Wyoming.
Water tower in Browning, Montana. Browning is a town in Glacier County with a total area of 0.27 square miles. It is home to the Blackfeet Indians.
August 30, 2016
Today I met a Japanese woman in Hot Springs, Montana, a small town on Flathead Indian Reservation. Keiko is one of two Japanese residents here. I approached her after seeing her perform at the Symes Hotel and she invited me to her trailer the next morning. The trailer was semi-permanently parked in her bandmate Wayo's backyard. A two-man tent sat beside it. I asked her why. She told me that she sleeps in it whenever her husband is away because the trailer is too big for her.
Keiko's mother and grandmother were victims of the US atomic bomb attacks in 1945. Though she did not experience the tragedy in person, she was heavily stigmatized as a "hibakusha"—or bomb victim—while residing in Japan. She now lives here in Hot Springs with Tony, her American husband.
Japan's post-war protocols centered primarily around democratization and economic recovery. In the wake of devastation, Japanese veterans, war orphans and hibakusha were deeply stigmatized because they were a painful reminder of past hardships in a new era of rapid modernization. I asked Keiko if she would ever return to Japan. She said that she has found healing here in America.
Byron posing with Steve, owner of an auto salvage yard in Lander and Billy, an ex-miner who is a volunteer garbage collector for the town of Jeffrey City.
Buffalo in Lamar Valley, Montana.
Mud races at Northern Navajo Nation Fair, held annually in Shiprock, New Mexico.
Off the I-287 in Wind River Valley, Wyoming.
Tiers of thermophilic algae at Yellowstone National Park.
A used bookstore near Sweetwater Station in Wyoming. They also sell fresh eggs.
September 11, 2016
Found my all-time favorite bookstore right off the I-287 in central Wyoming. Their sign read "Old Books and Fresh Eggs for Sale." Owners Polly and Linda moved here from Denver, Colorado and converted a neglected barn into an antiquarian book store that specializes in out-of-print titles.
Listening to Polly talk about sheep (there are 26 of them on site) was like listening to someone talk about their first love. She told me that they are the kindest creatures in the world. I asked her what it was like moving to central Wyoming with her lesbian partner. She told me that it was daunting, but so is turning a scrap barn into a bookstore while being side-eyed by a territorial moose.
Polly and Linda are the only two Democrats in their voting district.
Byron insists that he grew up "an old fashioned cowboy."
Jeffrey City locals playing pool at the Split Rock Cafe.
September 14, 2016
Leaving Byron was not easy. "But we still haven't gone to Charlie's Paradise," he said. "We can take more pictures."
I spent the past week at Byron's pottery studio in Jeffrey City, Wyoming. The lot used to be a gas station back when Jeffrey City was a mining boomtown. In the early 2000s, Byron bought the property for $5,000 and turned it into the workspace of his dreams.
Everyone loved him. Though he was a newcomer, Jeffrey City residents took to Byron and popped by the studio frequently. The place was a revolving door. We shot .22s, went swimming in the river, had bonfires unreasonably close to an old gas pump. I met the other half of the town at Split Rock Cafe and played pool into the small hours of the night.
Byron gets sad sometimes, for weeks on end. Chuck, the painter next door, and Billy, the local garbage collector, check in on him. This morning, Byron told me about a woman that he loves. "She's my Dorian," he said.
An unwittingly metaphorical display at a diner in Oatman, Arizona.
St. Elmo, Colorado. 2016.
Allen. Lander, Wyoming.
Cano. Antonito, Colorado.
September 25, 2016
Today I met Cano of Cano's Castle in Antonito, Colorado. Cano is a Vietnam veteran who has been building a three-tiered castle made out of found objects since 1980 and wishes to turn a portion of the property into a gathering space for artists and other veterans.
Cano not only showed me around his property but also invited me into his home. It was adorned with statues of Lady Guadalupe and multiple shrines. He told me that the castle was a project assigned to him by God after years of struggling with alcoholism. The tens of thousands of beer cans lining the interior frames seemed to represent his past hardships.
I wondered about the role of faith in our society. A significant portion of American welfare—especially in rural communities—is church-based. As a veteran in a town of 781 people, Cano may have faced a lack of resources to treat his alcoholism and PTSD. Is the church fulfilling material and spiritual needs that the state fails to provide? How does that affect spirituality in America?
Back lot of a crocodile farm in Mosca, Colorado.
A wall of hand-carved crosses inside a small shop in Vadito, New Mexico. Vadito is a mountain village in Taos County with a population of 270, 35.8% of whom live below the poverty level.
Junior cowgirls await their turn at the Western Navajo Nation Fair Finale in Tuba City, Arizona.
A lone Navajo Nation flag stands in the Colorado badlands, near the Little Colorado River.
October 9, 2016
Yesterday I went to the Western Navajo Nation Fair in Tuba City, Arizona. I ate fry bread and Navajo burgers while watching the junior cowgirl barrel races. Contestants came from all over Arizona and New Mexico—some of them as young as six years old. The girls took badassity to a whole new level.
Afterwards, I hung out behind the bleachers where some of the contestants, after a long day of competing, were chasing each other around with lassos and laughing maniacally, as children do.
I wondered if these Navajo girls had ever felt disadvantaged to boys. At what point does that change?
Decommissioned highway near Hanksville, Utah.
A cluster of handmade crosses erected off the side of the road on Route 66.
Sunrise in Death Valley, California.
Holly and Josh. Saline Valley.
Inside a chapel near artist Ted Grazia's home in Tucson, Arizona, dedicated to Lady Guadalupe and the Desert Indians. DeGrazia is well known for setting 100 of his paintings on fire deep in the Superstition Mountains to protest inheritance taxes on works of art.
October 29, 2016
Last night I woke to a rap on the door by two border patrol officers. I was parked off a secluded dirt road just outside of Yuma. After asking me a barrage of vaguely personal questions, they told me that the road I was parked on was infamous for drug and human smuggling. "If you stay here, you'll probably get woken up by one of us again," the officer said. "Or worse, from those types."
A bartender from Ajo told me that patrol presence in the area has gone up tenfold in the past five years. So far, I have passed through three border checkpoints and have seen border patrol trucks lugging ATVs around every corner. I imagine these beefed up ATVs chasing individuals and families through the scalding desert. This is what national security looks like in our country.
Once a thriving resort town known as "the miracle in the desert," Salton City has since become a much humbler town dotted with rogue trailers and docks in various stages of decay. Sun bleached signs advertise lots for less than $7000 a piece.
The high salinity of the Salton Sea combined with a sharp drop in water temperature during the colder months kill tilapia in mass numbers on a seasonal basis, causing their delicate, fossilized bodies to wash up onto shore.
Mopar. Slab City, California.
November 1, 2016
Today I drove out to Slab City and met Mopar, an East Jesus resident and self proclaimed introvert. At age 17, he started hitchhiking to find alternative ways of connecting with people. The rubber-tramping ended when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, Mopar was astounded by the kindness of locals despite his nationality and appearance. They treated him with warmth and respect, he told me, while knowing full well that he was the oppressor. After the war, Mopar bought a piece of land in Vietnam to reinvest in the community and spends half of the year there with his wife and children.
"They are not an exceptional people," he said. "But they are good people."
I asked him how he felt about American people. "I am here half of the year, aren't I?" he said.
The Gothic House in East Jesus. Mopar lived here for a year after moving to the Slabs. It was built by a health and safety engineer "with a dark side," he tells me.
Community library in Slab City, California.
November 9, 2016
Election results were announced today.
I think about Trump's wall and his tiny hands and long for the days when it was all fun and games. I think about the neighbor across the street at my parent's house with the lifted F-150 and three Trump signs on his front lawn. Poor guy, I used to think. A staunch Republican stranded in LA.
But most of all, I think about the disenfranchised white working class and how little I know of their plight. How low wages and long hours can drive many people to elect a racist bigot for president. Because amidst unpaid bills and food stamps, amidst absent fathers and eviction notices, "reclaiming" their country so easily translates to reclaiming their integrity.
“We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.” My mind keeps retracing these words by MLK. It's easy for college-educated, middle-class individuals like me to speak abstractly about a more inclusive welfare system. But for others, being on welfare is not an abstraction. If stricter immigration laws mean more jobs, less "moochers," anything but the status quo—it is, evidently, a viable option.
UFO Watch Tower. Center, Colorado.
Chuck is an artist who lives in Jeffrey City, Wyoming. Upon returning from his service in Vietnam, he worked at an array of odd jobs including a slaughterhouse where he lost his right middle finger.
Art Beal, a garbage collector from Cambria, California, bought this property to build a house for his partner Gloria. Not long after, Gloria left him. Art continued on to build a three-tiered mansion on the lot, made almost entirely out of "junk."
Empty beach near Dunes City, Oregon.
December 10, 2016
Today my road trip comes to an end. I wish I had something more definitive to say. What did I learn? What do Americans have in common? What makes us exceptional?
Truth is, after four months on the road, I don't know. I searched for answers in exchanges with chatty gas station clerks, the incoming storms clouds off the I-287, the sun setting over the Salton Sea. I retraced over and over the words of the people I met, stories about love and addiction and lost fingers and dead brothers, all told with the gentle ease of someone who is no longer a victim of their own story. Indeed, America is a country of storytellers.
What I can offer is this. The Americans I met found poetry in unlikely places. In the land of the free, gas stations can be pottery studios and old barns can be book stores and nuclear test sites can be a wonderful place to watch fireworks. In this country, tragedy becomes poetry and water becomes whisky and wounded veterans build castles three stories into the sky.
What makes Americans exceptional, perhaps, is how they've redefined dignity amidst chaos.