For just over three weeks, from 10th May to 1st June, I travelled through the United States of America, from North Dakota to Appalachia to Louisiana. During the course of this journey I drove thousands of miles (4390, according to Google Maps; 5165, according to the odometer). I passed through seventeen states, all but two of which voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. I saw national parks, national forests, and national monuments; prairies, mountains and swamps; bison, groundhogs, and alligators. I made literary pilgrimages (Red Cloud, Port Royal, and Rowan Oak) and musical ones (Tupelo and Highway 61). I saw floods in Louisiana, blazing sunshine in the Dakotas, and electrical storms in Indiana. I started using Oxford commas.
For most of this trip I travelled with the novelist Jennifer Haigh, and it was an enormous pleasure to do so. Spending this time with her, talking to her, I learned more than I could ever have done from travelling alone.
The blogs I have published on this page have scarcely touched upon the ideas and questions that have most interested and troubled me along the way. In part that is because my time has been so limited. But largely it was deliberate. I have been wary of publishing anything that might seem like a conclusion. I have been wary of haste and prejudice. The questions I have been asking – and that Jennifer and I have been discussing as we drove, ate and wandered – will take time to nudge in the direction of answers. And those answers, inevitably, will be tentative. I have spent only a little time in this huge, complicated country. I am not going to pretend that it does not, still, baffle me.
Much of the political division and tension in the United States today is a result of intolerance, on both right and left. It is a result of the failure to take time, to make the effort, to understand those you disagree with. 'Liberals' condemn and caricature half the population as ignorant, racist, backward; while 'conservatives' condemn the other half as hysterical elites, out-of-touch with reality. What truth there is in these criticisms is lost in the muddle of hyperbole.
Writing literature, in part, is an act of empathy, and as such it ought to cut through this hyperbole, this sweeping condemnation. But to do so is not simple. I have seen and heard things on this journey that have shocked me, offended me. It would be easy to draw words out from that shock, and to criticise what I don't understand. The sight of a Confederate flag waving in the hot, Mississippi sun made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I know why. My discomfort was not a surprise. But I didn't come to this country to confirm what I already knew. I didn't come to cement my own opinions. What is interesting about that flag is not how it made me feel, but why, in 2017, it is still there.
What I have tried to do on this journey is to observe honestly the things that I have seen. Now, my task is to turn those observations into something more substantial: into words that I am willing to share. I hope that somewhere in the many pages of notes I made, and in the hours of conversations I had with Jennifer and with others along the way, I will find what I need to do that.
I was one of five Scottish writers chosen by Edinburgh International Book Festival to undertake extraordinary journeys across the Americas in spring and summer 2017.
I travelled through the United States for three weeks, from north to south, beginning in North Dakota, through Appalachia, and ending in Louisiana. For much of this time I was accompanied by the novelist Jennifer Haigh.
You can follow my progress on Twitter and Instagram, and keep up-to-date with all the travellers using the hashtag #Outriders.