The Inherent Masterpiece
The 50/50 Project
23 December 2016
These ink blot memories, churning in my head for months, have now transformed from abstractions to the perfected masterpiece in a crescendo of harmonic clarity. In simple nouns, my mind holds vignettes from cities around the country: restaurants, canyons, highways, downtown skylines, mountain peaks; and further still in faces. I hold one hundred and twenty-eight days of unknown lives: families, strangers, hosts and housemates, the homeless and their pets.
In four months and six days, from April to September of 2016, I drove over 16,000 miles across the United States. I called it The 50/50 Project. In this one expedition, I made it to 49 out of the 50 united states in America. Hawaii will wait, but I welcome a lesson in patience.
My goal was to interview and photograph one person in every state. I’m finished driving, for now, but I did forget to take my Michigan portrait and completely forgot about interviewing anyone in Arizona. On a project of this scale, those are some damaging mistakes, but I won’t say I feel like a failure. I think I came out alright in the end.
I was navigating a canvas of the unfamiliar, my brush, an SUV. What was once a simple means of transport became more companion than device. It was both partner and cocoon. Only one night did I rest my head in a hotel. Generosity was the only reason I ever had a bed, often a meal, and then gave the hope which brought me further than I ever expected. It was the people that made my trip. I cannot express gratitude enough for each and every person who played a part in making me feel so welcome and so loved. I saw some of the most amazing sights this country has to offer, but no vista, no matter how stunning, could match the comfort given from time enjoyed with a friend.
I’ve spent the last few hours reading through this summer’s journal entries. I couldn’t tell you half of what’s written in here, but the stories recorded are so rich. It’s clear I carry my wealth in memories, in words.
Consider these literal treasures: I watched the sun rise over the Atlantic. I stood on the grounds of the Wounded Knee Massacre. I picked wildflowers in Yellowstone. I slid down an epic glacier in Montana. I spontaneously attended a wedding in Seattle. I saw the sun set beyond the Pacific. I cruised my longboard along the south rim of the Grand Canyon during a thunderstorm. I counted shooting stars along the Gulf Coast at midnight. I chatted up a tour guide in downtown Savannah and landed a place to sleep on a yoga room floor.
These scenes may do nothing for you, but I don’t know how else to share the scope of this experience in its totality. And whatever sum my wealth of experience amounts to, it did not come with a lack of great concern or displeasure.
Consider an excerpt scribbled in my journal. At the forefront of this journey, I was riddled with uncertainty. Written in Bar Harbor, Maine (2/50) on May 6th:
“There is so much before me, and still, I choose to focus on my doubts and fears. The what if’s and regrets of missed opportunities. This is a Hell of a season. This is hard. This is harder than the island. I told myself if I could do that, I could do anything. Now here I am finding myself in the middle of a very difficult thing. The most difficult. Stressful. Challenging. So what awaits me on the other side of this? God pulls me out here with my restlessness and desire for adventure, then I cower and shy away to the corners, watching doubt perform its tragedies before me… Why am I putting myself through this?”
Throughout my journal, again and again, I asked myself or God, “What am I doing here?” or “Why am I on this trip?” Though nothing more than a wandering nomad, I had the romanticized idea when I left home that I was a Knight off questing to meet a princess or to chance upon a hidden treasure. There is no doubt in my mind that many of my travels are spurred from the desire to escape. To escape from a life I don’t want to live, which I’ve typified as a nine-to-five office job, and this, to pursue happiness, which I had identified as travel.
This is wrong thinking. Happiness is not the goal. And this misplaced priority throws everything out of balance. I never knew how to write about this trip, not while I was on it, or the months following its conclusion. I don’t know what to share or the best way to start, but after all the interviews and stories I’ve heard, I think I’ve learned the greatest motivation for why people do what they do, myself included.
In what I’ve seen from people and families across this country, each and every one of them is simply trying to live life: to work hard, to enjoy the time they’re given, to care and provide for their spouses and children or themselves, to protect them from harm and uncertainty. And to fulfill these commitments they each carry a priority which gives them the motivation to face the day and take it as it comes. Whether it’s making people smile or exploring the unknown, we all strive for something, and the reoccurring theme, the goal, I’ve found from all these encounters is not the pursuit of happiness. It is love.
Love is the goal.
It is out of the love for people that you strive to make them smile. It is out of love for the beauty of creation that we explore the unknown parts of the world. It is love. It is love that always protects, always trusts. It’s the foundation for how we care for one another.
We give it in gestures of gift-giving and long embraces. We give it in words of prayer and encouragement. If happiness is the goal it can be attained without love, but if love is the paramount pursuit then so much joy will be spread from that singular endeavor. Not only is it love which allows us to forgive wrongs committed against us, but also, it is love and loving deeply which covers a multitude of wrongs.
I left my home in Memphis thinking I would find happiness on the road, and that motivation gave out on me not a week later. Still, I carried on through my grievances and discomfort. The strength I had was hope, but I failed to recognize the love in it, that love always hopes. I failed in my pursuit of happiness, and for that, I am thankful, for I found so much more joy in pursuing love.
This masterwork I discovered upon the completion of this trip was not one of my own creation, but the Creator himself; then settled the simple realization that we are the works of art, and love is the inherent masterpiece we should strive to display. Now I know wholeheartedly, it was love which brought me to the end, because love always endures. And if I’ve learned anything from this trip which God has conducted in the most beautiful orchestration, it is this: I will never stop loving.
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