We left our house on the Air Force Academy around noon on the 10th of June, 2021. We didn’t have a strict or predetermined agenda for the journey other than a few required destinations. I’d taken 2 weeks off of work and we only knew we were headed first to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, the first of three stops to honor the memory of our daughter Rebecca, who died in May of last year– to visit a few of her favorite places on earth and… commemorate her passing or something.
“Commemorate” has always seemed like such a weird word to me, because what the fuck does it even mean? We were going to scatter a few ashes, and open ourselves up a bit more than usual to memories of when she was both alive and still living, at a few of the special spots where she was happiest, before she lost the light in her eyes for that year before the morning she stopped breathing last Spring. It seems logical to set aside a ritualized window of time to give captive emotions a bit of a recess, like how you might exercise prisoners of war–to let them out of the dark cell and give them a chance to get some sunlight, stretch, and kick the shit out of you for a little while. You can’t just leave them there in the dark, doing pushups, bench-pressing the bed, and concocting escape plans…
We would of course be taking the scenic route.
It felt weird when people referred to this as a “vacation”, which they did because that’s what you call it when people aren’t working. “Have a nice vacation”, they’d say, and sometimes we’d thank them. Sometimes we’d point out that at the center of all of this was something probably less chipper… less gleeful than the word “vacation” evokes. At the center of this was the memory of a dead 14-year-old daughter who had been uncharacteristically quiet for over a year now after being nothing if not a cacophony… a joyful and painful symphony of medical beeps and the sounds of a dysfunctional airway or the frequent laughter that cut through all other sounds when there were sounds or through silence when she was just laughing in her bed at her music or lights as we all lay in bed at night. Was this a vacation? It certainly wouldn’t be only somberness and pain, but the word didn’t fit.
We knew that our first stop was going to be near Santa Fe, as I had secured tickets to see Meow Wolf in Santa Fe on day 2 of our journey.
Our method of travel planning on most days involved the following steps:
1. Find out where we might end up after 6-7 hours of driving in the direction of our first destination
2. Check the recreation.gov app for campsites in the vicinity
3. Check the Ultimate Campgrounds app for campsites if recreation.gov didn’t turn anything up
4. Find a hotel if neither of those options worked out
On our way to Santa Fe, we stopped by the site of the Ludlow Massacre, alerted to its presence by the Roadtrippers app, a place where in 1914, 21 coal miners, wives, and children were killed by anti-striker militia who attacked the Ludlow tent colony of 1200 striking coal miners and their families, in just one horrific chapter of the Colorado Coalfield War, which has been called by one historian the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States”.
At that time, treatment of workers and working conditions had deteriorated following the sale of Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) to John D. Rockefeller, who gave his portion of the company to his son John D. Rockefeller Jr as a birthday gift. Rampant corruption in middle management and apathy from the highest levels enabled conditions that were disastrously unsafe, with a fatality rate more than double the national average and mine explosions that killed over 131 in one year in the same county as the Ludlow Colony. CF&I had contracted the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break the strike, an outfit that had moved from investigating train robberies and other crimes into security and strike-breaking. They were well known for their brutal tactics. They used an armored car with a mounted machine gun called the Death Special by miners, to fire randomly into the tent colony, occasionally hitting residents. Miners and their families dug pits beneath their tents to avoid these and sniper attacks.
I wasn’t able to get out of the car when we arrived at the site of the Ludlow Massacre. I was sitting in the back of the minivan in an improvised office attending a virtual event hosted by my friend Austin Wiggins for the Agitare community, in which he was sharing his recent research on the subject of abstraction, analogy, and how they relate to practices of design. For a few hours as we sped down the road at the start of our trip, I was in a lovely, small, academic and engaging conference… and then in the parking lot as my wife Jessica and son Daniel explored the site of the massacre and read about what had happened there in a battle between big industry and human beings seeking better treatment. I told the attendees a little bit about where we were. I reveled in the strangeness of the circumstances and shared some of the history as I knew it.
The rest of the day’s drive passed pleasantly as the verdant green of Colorado transitioned eventually into a sparser, dryer New Mexico (though still stunning especially where the road wended its way through river canyons and unexpected forests). I’m still thinking about the Ludlow Massacre now 16 days later… about that custom-built armored car made in Pueblo, and the detective agency that specialized in brutal suppression of workers’ rights movements, and how they murdered 21 people in 1914 who were hiding in a pit under a tent to try and evade snipers and random gunfire. I think it’s weird to think about the death of the memories of incidents like this, incidents that might speak to trends in our national character or values or cultural systems that we still must be wary of today.
We made it to Abiquiu Reservoir and the Riana Campground before sunset. We stopped on our way in to grab dinner at a pricey café with decent food which also somehow served as a Georgia O’Keefe gallery. I would have expected something like that to be my kind of thing, but the place was swarming with geriatric artsy types wearing sandals and funky semi-indigenous-inspired shirts and beads, being enthusiastically passive-aggressive at the wait staff. It was all too moneyed to be authentic. These people were clearly on vacation, and full of expectations about how everything was supposed to go.
The sunset over the lake was lovely, and our first night of sleep in our new vamping (van camping) setup worked brilliantly.