By Allie Matthias ’19
On the Fourth of July, I paddled up the Mississippi River as part of a New York Times Student Journey. The late afternoon sun-baked the canoe as sweat dripped down my back. My heart pounded, my eyes stung from melted sunscreen, and my arms began to feel like jelly as we pushed against the current. Isaac, the curly-haired leader of our canoe, sat in front of me while the rest of our group, a diverse mix of boys and girls from all across the country, sat behind me with their paddles ready. Isaac began paddling and the rest of us followed, trying to coordinate with his movements. Everyone grew tired as we reached the Arkansas border and some took a rest. Thinking, “this is good practice for the upcoming tennis season,” I kept pushing forward, but my arms grew heavier and heavier as more and more of my friends stopped paddling. I trusted myself to keep moving, but we needed everyone to propel us forward. On this journey, we examined social justice, specifically racial injustices, in the American South. We explored heavy issues that required us to be honest and vulnerable to broaden our understandings of each other. Canoeing was like having one of our conversations. We all had to work together to push forward into new ideas or new states of mind. Whitney, our group leader, suggested that we sing together to make the ride a little easier to endure. So, we joined together, paddling and singing Sweet Caroline in unison as we drifted towards a little island in the middle of the Mississippi. We trusted each other to give all our effort to paddling, and, in those moments, I was able to let myself go.
For me, this summer was the summer of exploring the United States and my role as a U.S. citizen. I witnessed both the beautiful and the ugly of this country by beginning and ending my summer in national parks and traveling through the South in between.
I began my summer with a family road trip through Appalachia, where I drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiked Shenandoah National Park and the Smoky Mountains, and stayed at the majestic and eery Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. This was a part of the country that I’ve never been to before; the farthest south I had previously traveled in the U.S. was Florida (which barely counts as Southern). In West Virginia, I saw the embrace of Southern white tradition in the over-patterned and well-groomed Greenbrier, a monolith of golf courses and sweet tea. In Eastern Tennessee, I biked through a town ravaged with confederate flags and trucks. Yet, on the other side of all of this was the physical beauty of the Smoky Mountains that pulsed with both an intricate ecosystem of animals and enthusiastic environmentalists.
I ventured deeper into the South with the New York Times to dive into the racial injustices and the culture that was derived from it. From New Orleans to Clarksdale, Mississippi, I saw how there is great diversity and art pulsating throughout, from the blues music to theater groups. At the same time, in every city we ventured through, history was knocking. We visited the lynching memorial in Montgomery, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and toured a plantation that memorialized slave lives in Louisiana. There is so much to learn about the South, not just from physical buildings, but from people too, as they are the ones who lived through these stories.
I ended my survey of the U.S. in the Pacific Northwest, taking a ferry through the San Juan Islands and hiking in North Cascades and Olympic National Park. With my senior year closing in, I felt thankful for this breath of fresh air in an environment so distinct from New Jersey.
More than anything, my summer revealed the duality of this country, from the arts and culture to the racism and discrimination. In each state I traveled through, I considered how there has been so much progress, but there is still so much more to do. Most of all, I learned about myself as an American, what it means, and my identity in this country.