With the planet on pause, America has once again felt an ocean away, says Pól Ó Conghaile. But the day feels closer when we can visit again...
I was driving down Highway 61, craning my neck in the soupy heat of the American south, trying to find the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
Rusty silos off-road were smothered in kudzu vines, signs advertised $1 buck buffets, and the Mississippi ran a muddy brown. Back in Memphis, I’d been to Graceland, to Sun Studios, and was now searching out the best blues legend in the Mississippi Delta. I felt electric.
America is full of sweeping, super-sized moments like this; of places where history, popular culture and mind-blowing landscapes combine to make you feel like you’ve stepped out of a cinema seat and walked straight into the screen. But it’s full of small moments, too. Biting into the perfect bagel in New York. Wrestling a stack of blueberry pancakes in a Nashville diner. A lost afternoon in one of Chicago’s dive bars. Yellow cabs, flags in lawns; the thrill of finding cheap jeans in an outlet mall or Caramel M&Ms in a corner store. It’s the sheer American-ness of it.
For over a year now, that’s been cut off. And I miss it.
As the shock of Covid turned to stubborn numbness, I thought a lot about what travel means to me, about how much I took it for granted. In early 2020, half a day and a few hundred euro could get you to LA. Now, we’ve snapped back to a place where the US once again feels an actual ocean away. We can talk to our American friends and doom-scroll its news in real time, but the place itself seems untouchable.
Last year, Ireland got a new long-distance walking route, the National Famine Way. It follows the trail of the “Missing 1,490”, a group of emigrants who walked from Strokestown, Co Roscommon to Dublin’s coffin ships in 1847. Our pandemic-enforced distance from the US reminded me of those epic journeys, and why our connections with America run so deep.
Joe Biden traces his roots to the Finnegans of Louth and Blewitts of Ballina. Before him, we had Obama in Moneygall, Reagan in Ballyporeen, Kennedy in New Ross. As a kid growing up, my friend’s American cousins were exotic visitors who lavished him with a 20 dollar bill and Coca-Cola spinner yo-yo. J1 visas have given generations of Irish students the greatest summer memories.
“The city holds us and we don’t know why,” is a well-worn quote by Maeve Brennan, one of millions who moved there, going on to write for The New Yorker.
Have you ever wondered whether you should move there too?
It’s not just the shared DNA. America is embedded in our brains from our children’s first turns of pages and swipes of screens. It is Nirvana and Nina Simone, ET and ER, Watergate and the Wild West. It is Route 66 and 9/11, Toni Morrison and Donald Trump. It seems irretrievably divided, up to its neck in guns and the air-con is always freezing. The American Dream feels like a breathtaking fallacy but at the same time, anything is possible. American culture is a ravishing steamroller, something you cannot get out of the way of, nor ever really want to.
Maybe this sounds too grand, or goofy, but I feel all of that swilling around in me when I go to the US. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time wasn’t just a sight to see. I felt it in my bones. Seeing the X on the floor in Sun Studios didn’t feel cheesy. It marked the actual spot where Elvis sang.
Covid has made our landscapes tiny again, reduced our roaming to rooms, gardens, 5ks. That’s one reason why the sheer vastness and texture of America feels freshly magnetic. But it’s not just the big cities and wide-screen landscapes, the theme parks and national parks, that I crave. It’s the silly stuff, too. The detail. The “tom-ay-toes” and “al-ooh-min-um” and brilliant looks of confusion when you use the word “craic”. It’s the disarming way people call you “sir”. It’s the way you always think it will be cheap, but the tips and the taxes and the intoxication of just being there see the dollars fly out of your pocket.
America is a place you go to press “turbo” on your life for a few days. And I miss it.
This pining is privileged, of course. Not everyone can travel, and not all travel is about holidays. Many, many people have been unable to come home, or to see family in the States, for well over a year. But we can dream, can’t we? There is also a sniff of optimism in the air. Vaccines appear to finally be making inroads into the Covid stats that terrorise us on the nightly news, the US is racing ahead with its own vaccination roll-outs, and Americans are starting to travel (and book travel) again in greater numbers.
Suddenly, hearing the sound of American accents ringing out around Killarney or Cong, or the notion of queuing in a Florida theme park or staring up at the Freedom Tower as New Yorkers swarm around you like shoals of fish, doesn’t feel impossible.
I didn’t get to that that crossroads, by the way — the intersection of Highway 61 and 49, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson is said to have traded his soul for a mastery of the blues. Along the way, I was distracted by a smaller crossing, a dusty roadsign, a cinematic sky. I got lost in the moment taking pictures. Time ran out, and and I had an appointment to make in Arkansas.
But as anyone on a good American road trip knows, the journey is the point, not the destination. Bob Dylan’s lyrics are in my head, now future adventures feel possible again.
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61