I had been on the road for two weeks and my initial excitement over this road trip had already worn off. I was feeling lonely and homesick and was missing familiar faces. It was the end of October and my long-standing avoidance of talking to people, especially those I photograph, hadn’t broken yet. It did, eventually, as I mentioned in my previous article. But for now, we’re in late October and I’m not feeling my best. So I messaged my friend David Horton in Boston and I asked him for a favor. I wanted to see if it would be alright to spend Thanksgiving with his family. His response was an immediate “done!!!”, give or take a dozen exclamation points.
David is also a photographer and we both belong to the same photography collective, “Observe”. We had only met four times before, so in ‘real world’ standards he would be an acquaintance. But we had known each other online since 2012, when I first started taking Street Photography seriously. In an environment where one seeks and is asked to give critique about photography, such as the groups we belonged to, the façades we build are ultimately removed; the photographs we take are very revealing about our true selves, regardless the subject. Psychobabble aside, I had last seen David at the end of November 2015, when I flew in from Beirut to Manhattan for a conference on fiscal laws — It’s sometimes easy for me to forget that I was a very ‘serious’ suit-and-tie guy only a few months prior. Wanting to take a couple days to myself before the conference started, I drove to Boston, my first time visiting the city, and the next day David and I drove back to New York City, street photography mecca, to shoot on the streets there. On the road, whatever decorum there still was in our conversation soon went out the window after Boston boy started swearing for me to turn off the ‘goddamn Country Christmas music’ I was playing on the radio. Yankees…
So needless to say, I was very happy that I was going to spend this Thanksgiving with friends. Not that we observe that holiday in Lebanon, but back when I was studying in San Francisco, I always celebrated it with my aunt and cousins who live there, and what’s better than getting together with family and friends for a long day of eating and drinking and then passing out?
Jump forward to late November 2016 where I’m heading out of Lebanon, Michigan. (I will fill the gaps about the towns I visited in subsequent posts). As I was fairly close to Grand Rapids, I contacted Karyn and Chris Babbitt, a couple who lives there whom I had met at a youth hostel in Girdwood, Alaska six years ago. Nothing beats hostels for cheap travelers, and it’s a great opportunity to meet people from all walks of life there. But it’s not always easy to keep contact with folks one meets for a day or two before parting ways. Not in this case though; near-death experiences – and facebook – keep people close.
One day in Girdwood, we had all decided to hike Byron Glacier, which promised breathtaking mountain views. While on the trail, in the snow and pouring rain, we spot a bloody puddle along our path, easily noticeable in its bright red contrasting the sea of white surrounding it. In the puddle were what seemed like animal flesh and bone remains. And then someone in the group, I forget who, screams: “Bear!” Not very far from us, there it was, lurking.
Forget staying calm or playing dead or whatever one is taught on how to behave when encountering a bear. We were running as if our lives depended on it. Literally. There might have been a slight soiling of one’s pants too. Perhaps ‘near-death experience’ was a slight exaggeration, but it’s one of those memories that aren’t easily forgotten. And getting a chance to see Karyn and Chris again, in a fear-free environment this time, wasn’t something I was going to miss.
It was snowing heavily that day, and we met in a bar in Grand Rapids. They were now married and had a beautiful young boy. The conversation was picked up as if it was only last month that I had seen them. Fun and drinks were had by all. Thank you, Internet.
I had only a few days left before having to get to Boston on November 23rd. But there was still one stop to make. Another photographer whom I’d known for a few years online, Don Hudson, had been communicating with me during my trip with tips and encouragement on road-tripping. He is a road master who has documented Michigan from the early 70s to the late 80s through a wonderful book called “From the Archives.” We had agreed to meet on Monday, Nov 21st, but then the evening before, perhaps taking pity on a guy who’s been sleeping in Walmart parking lots the whole time, he invited me to come over and spend the night at his and his wife Gene’s house. Don and I had never met before, so this kind of kindness and generosity it takes to invite a quasi-stranger to your house is extremely humbling. I finally met Don and Gene, talking for hours about photography and politics and my Lebanon and theirs. Whatever anti-social behavior I was still suffering from at the beginning of my trip was long gone now.
The next morning, I was off on my 10-hour-a-day drives to get to Boston in time. And when I finally arrived to the city, it was as if I had just started learning how to operate a vehicle. The narrow roads and people driving like lunatics scared me half to death, bearing in mind that I’ve driven in Beirut all my life, a city infamous for its crazy drivers. But I guess it only takes a month of cruising on the wide open spaces of the American Midwest to unlearn all the defensive driving habits picked up in cities. (I would also later learn from people in Maine that Massachusetts drivers are called ‘massholes’, but that’s a story for another time.)
At one point, the road I was on was headed to pass under a bridge, and only a few meters before getting beneath the bridge was there a sign that said “Low clearance. Only cars”. My RV is 3.5 meters high and my only two options were either to continue driving and tear the roof off, or to stop right there and then and go in reverse – à la Libanaise – until I could take a different route. I chose the latter. People honked, gave me the finger, and if my windows weren’t closed I’d have heard some meaty Bostonian cussings. To make things worse, as soon as I reached the point where I could take a detour, police sirens started wailing behind me in the distance; I could see 3 of them. I should have behaved rationally and pulled to the side. But I panicked. So I took a quick right into a hotel parking, exited from the back and made my way into a university campus nearby. Not my proudest moment. I then realized how futile it would be to outchase police cars in a big motorhome, so I stopped and just waited. It turned out that I was in one of Harvard University’s campuses. Three years ago I was getting ready to apply to a PhD program of theirs, and here I was at that moment, hiding from cops in their parking lot. What a few years could do to a man… Luckily this incident ended well. Either the police lost me, or even more likely that they were chasing someone else to begin with, but no one came after me. So I finally made my way out onto the streets again, carefully taking a different route until I was able to reach my friend David’s house.
This is where the radio interview comes in. A few days after I published my first post on this blog and right after I had contacted David to join his family for Thanksgiving, I received an email from a journalist living in Beirut who used to work for US public Radio, NPR, and he asked if I’d be interested in doing a radio interview regarding my project on a show called “The World” with Marco Werman. As it happened, the show was recorded in Boston, so instead of doing the interview over the phone, I would be able to do it in their studios. On that day, the sound engineer wasn’t ready in the studio, so we ended up recording the section in my RV and it was also broadcast live on the show’s facebook page. Fifteen minutes of fame and no complaints.
Thanksgiving Day was a most welcome détente from the previous days of craziness. I had met David’s wife Molly and his son Cooper the year before, and this time I finally got to meet his younger son Mason, and Kayleigh, Cooper’s fiancée. To say that I was welcomed as if I were just another member of the family would be an understatement. I couldn’t be more thankful. The extended family later arrived and the whole gathering felt like a mini UN convention. David’s nephew Eamon, Molly’s sister Betsy, her Swiss husband Giovanni, their sons Jamie and Leo, and Jamie’s Iranian-American girlfriend, Sarah. In addition to a foreign exchange student from Brazil who works with Giovanni. A foreigner forgetting another foreigner’s name; that’s just awful… The conversations naturally revolved around the US election results and it was, for lack of a better word, lively. But what is a great familial meal without loud discussions? Boring, that’s what.
David had baited me to talk about my experience in the Midwest, a far more pleasant experience than how the region is now sometimes portrayed, and about both presidency candidates’ foreign policy programs. No blood was shed. To the contrary, Sarah and I went into a heated debate about the complexity of the political situation in just about every Middle Eastern country, and we eventually came to the obvious conclusion that humanity is basically screwed. Having more pie proved to be a good distraction.
As the meal concluded, Betsy asked that we each write down the thing we are most thankful about on small post-it notes. Each note was then randomly passed for someone else to read, keeping the writer anonymous. Eamon’s note read: “I am thankful that the earth is now truly flat and close friends can be made anywhere around the globe.”
The sentence rang so true to me that I asked Eamon to hold the note so I could take a picture of it. It wasn’t until yesterday, when I was talking to David on the phone, that I asked if he had any idea who wrote it. “Oh it was me,” he said. But of course. As our other Observe Collective friend Larry Cohen keeps saying: “The Internet is as real as you make it to be.” I’ll drink to that. Cheers, and a belated happy Thanksgiving.