Up and down; up and down, up and down.
That’s what the second half of the road trip felt like as we drove through mountains and deserts in my little blue Chevy Cobalt; as we whipped through snow-capped mountains and then mounds of red rocks scattered throughout the vastness of red dirt that is much of Arizona. The sun rose and it set and we watched both at different times; we hiked and we climbed and we descended, over and over again.
If you pay enough attention on a trip like this, you will notice that there are other kinds of ups and downs ingrained across America. Anyone can notice the beauty of a golden sunset against red desert, or of the Rocky Mountains at the beginning of the summer, or of the hour before sunset inside of the Grand Canyon. To see the beauty of these places is a privilege and makes you realize that often, beauty is something you have to take in, experience and tuck away because it can’t be captured in words or photographs.
But beauty does have its counterpart; an ugliness that is equally difficult to capture or replicate. To understand ugliness in the midst of the kind of beauty that awakens the soul is almost impossible, but I think ugliness needs to be confronted to truly appreciate the good this world has to offer.
We met a man while hiking into the Grand Canyon. His name was Peter, he was on a yearlong sabbatical from Amsterdam and he arrived in Delaware on a cargo ship 11 months ago. He tried to pass by our little hiking group quietly, but three of us were journalists; he didn’t get very far before we began questioning him.
Peter’s demeanor is humble and inoffensive, yet his words pack a punch. He speaks with a wisdom you cling to and long to hear more of. Because of this, I asked him what he had learned over the past 11 months.
“It’s a beautiful world,” he answered, a whisper of a smile crossing his face as he looked at me to answer.
And as we walked a little further to one of the viewpoints on the trail, I had to agree.
“It is a beautiful world,” I said.
“Yes it is,” Peter said, “but we need to protect it.”
Peter talked to us about carbon footprints; about how his is negative, and about how only one country in the world has a negative carbon footprint: Cuba. And as we sat surrounded by one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world, it seemed ridiculous that we wouldn’t alter our lifestyles to preserve the world around us. Peter’s words pressed the urgency of our environmental degradation upon us; at that moment, it was real and something we couldn’t and shouldn’t ignore.
From the Grand Canyon, Bri, Jillian and I traveled to Vegas. Vegas is exactly what you would expect; a kind of adult playground where rules are thrown out the window, along with lines that usually aren’t crossed and certain societal standards of morality. And if you can compartmentalize all of this and let it be what it is, Vegas is also fun. There’s a lot of lights and fun restaurants and pools and dancing and – believe it or not – relatively clean fun to be had, too.
For me, the ugliness wasn’t in the what. It wasn’t about what people were doing, because the acts themselves really just revealed a lot of what we already know about our culture and ourselves and what people will do if there aren’t consequences. It’s in the why. It’s the underlying ugliness of the almost-invariably Latino workers who emotionlessly hand out cards featuring naked women to passerby on the street; they gaze around them, not making eye contact, many of them with headphones in. It’s the ugliness of the huge homeless population. Some lie in the middle of the sidewalks at night, passed out with a bottle nearby as thousands of people walk by and pay them no attention. Others hold signs saying things like, “Why lie? Need beer.” And it’s the ugliness of the signs advertising ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ with a phone number underneath, and in knowing that if you call that number, someone will answer and, for whatever reason, has chosen to do so.
And now I’m in LA. I moved into my little bungalow with my roommate Emily, I went hiking one day and to the beach the next and I survived my first big-girl moment when my car broke (GM is covering everything – thank you recall!). Monday I started my internship with the LA Times, which I was even more excited for after attending the paper’s editorial awards last Thursday night.
Emily, my roommate, and I happened to be in Flagstaff the same night, so we hiked the Grand Canyon together. The thing about a canyon is that it’s the opposite of a mountain; you go down first, and then up. So you save the hard part of the hike for last. As we huffed and puffed our way back up to the rim of the canyon, we talked. And somehow the Santa Barbara shootings came up and how it’s difficult to cover ugly tragedies like that. I’ve never covered a shooting, but last summer I did cover a hit-and-run of a guy only about a year older than I was. I followed the story as it unwound; I talked to his friends, his parents and his girlfriend as they frantically searched Raleigh for him.
Once the body was found, it was harder to find anyone to talk to. After following a trail of phone numbers and contacts, I finally got ahold of the guy’s fraternity house father. And I told him, as gently as I could, that this was his last chance to tell me something he wanted the world to know about the guy who had died, because the nature of the news business is that the story will get one day and one day only. So the man told me how all of the guy’s college friends were gathered at the man’s house right then, praying together.
And that was beautiful. It is a privilege to find little slivers of beauty in the midst of terrible ugliness; good journalists know this and know to search for these snapshots of humanity as if their jobs depended on it. Most stories have the opportunity to touch the human soul, because they’re stories about people, and we all have so much to learn from each others’ beauty and ugliness, trials and triumphs, heartbreaks and happiness.
As we talked and hiked up the Grand Canyon, I felt inspiration all over again to be a compassionate, honest storyteller. Inspiration like that sparks the courage necessary to confront the ugliness head on and to dig frantically in search of the beauty. It spurs upward and lures downward and guides through temporary darkness. It reminds me of the value of the human soul and the meaning of that soul being known and of the underlying truth that we all have within our stories.
I’ve seen beauty and I’ve seen ugliness and I’ve seen the two juxtaposed together, side-by-side. I’ve seen them in Kenya, in Mexico and on my recent road trip across America. And both are equally haunting and get under my skin and get me moving. So I hope my own story this summer has a lot to do with beauty and ugliness and with handling both fearlessly and compassionately.