Dying to Live in America
On June 18th, 2020 I left for Kansas. Protests were continuing around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and states were beginning to loosen COVID restrictions — some wearily and some confidently. I was heading to the capital Topeka to begin an interview project with my friend Adrian who had insisted on connecting while I was still 27.
When I was 15 I became convinced I would die at the age of 27. It was a strange conviction, later reinforced by my discovery of the 27 Club. I felt so sure of it and I was completely unable to imagine life past that age. Unsurprisingly, I was depressed during this time, though, the thought of dying young didn’t make it worse. It felt somewhat reassuring at a time when I was thinking I didn’t want to live at all.
This feeling stayed with me until sometime in my early 20s when I finally felt like I wanted to live past 27. I decided it wasn’t my fate. It was that simple. I was finally at a point where I could honestly say I liked living and the thought of living a long life made me happy. I started imagining myself living into old age and when I turned 27 I didn’t remember the previous prediction of my death.
Adrian reminded me of all of this as we were planning our trip to Kansas. We had talked about it before and he really wanted to meet up before I turned 28 on July 10th. I wasn’t sure testing fate by driving across a pandemic stricken country in the middle of violent upheaval was a good idea, but, I said yes and didn’t give it much more thought.
Until the night before I left when my partner Gemma looked at me with a concerned look and said “I’m scared you’re going to die.”
This freaked me the fuck out. We hadn’t talked about my 27 premonition before and now wasn’t the time. An intense sadness hit me but I think I managed to sound relaxed as I said “Don’t worry, I won’t”. Of course, I would say that to her. But her words unknowingly stirred a decade of foreboding and nihilism which made my insides feel like they were collapsing upon themselves. The idea had never scared me before. But now, with my birthday less than a month away and a long trip ahead of me, I was scared. Still, Gemma didn’t need to be scared too, just as I was leaving her alone for 10 days. So I told her “Don’t worry” and tried not to worry myself.
The next morning I woke up at 4:30 am, finished packing, and ate my breakfast while watching the sunrise. I had put the fear out of my mind and was excited about the trip ahead. Just before 6 am I got on I-95 towards New York and Pennsylvania which I would traverse before going down into West Virginia. As soon as I got on, the violent speed and chaos of the highway made me overwhelmingly anxious as I suddenly felt sure I wouldn’t survive 20+ hours of driving like this. I tried to reassure myself that the conviction I had about my early demise was partly due to my lack of vision past 27 and now I could imagine my life far into the future. So I started to think about what I would do after my birthday, this fall, and farther on, but all I found was a void. Once again, I couldn’t see past my 28th birthday.
I quickly forced myself to stop trying to imagine my path ahead and the possibility that it ended on this trip, and I instead focused on driving. My fear subsided as I got wrapped up in a podcast and the insanity of the freeway became normalized with time.
After 8 hours of driving, I was in West Virginia, not far from where I was staying for the night. It started to rain. It was light at first but quickly became torrential. Driving up and down the incessant hills became sketchy and the audiobook I was listening to did little to comfort me. In fact, it was the story of a father searching for his son who had gone missing on July 10th, 2014 at the age of 27. This was an unfortunate coincidence. Going into the book I didn’t know his age or the date of his disappearance. Now I felt I was receiving another bad omen as sketchy driving conditions coincided with my arrival in an increasingly remote and wild place.
Once I finally got off the highway, I navigated without series through a series of single-track dirt roads and finally reached Tawney Farm where I would camp out for the night. I met the owner James and we talked for a long time. He told me about his close calls rafting the Gauley river nearby and the time he was shot at by coal miners, angry he was hosting a peaceful protest training on his property. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to forget my mortality on this trip. But, I had made it. Through day 1 of 10.
After spending the next night by the Mississippi in Missouri’s Trail of Tears State Park, I arrived in Kansas and met Adrian at Truckhenge where we would be camping for the next week.
Truckhenge is the most American place I’ve ever been. Once a farm, it is now part fishing spot, part art farm, and, of course, an informal gun range. I had thought we were going to be well away from the gun range during our stay but turns out, we were camping 50 yards from it. Throughout our visit, our sentences were cut short by gunshots and any moment of peace during the day was fleeting. At first, it was funny. Then it was annoying. Then it was disturbing — especially imagining how easy it would be for a stray to find its way to us. Then, it was normal.
From our strange home base, we traveled throughout the area, going to people’s homes and interviewing them from a safe distance with our masks on the whole time. It was strange. Most people were pretty lackadaisical in part because Kansas hadn’t been hit too hard. Still, we wanted to be as careful as possible since we were coming into contact with so many people and we’d be going home to our loved ones. Wearing a mask all the time made me feel even more distant and different from the people I encountered then I normally would as a visitor. There was an additional barrier between us which was felt physically. I didn’t feel as seen by the world around me and I noticed my thoughts turning inward more often than usual. It was easy to remember the mask was there to prevent death. It was also easy to think it wasn’t enough. When my dry, sanitized hands would finally remove it after a long interview, it felt like a flimsy safeguard that was more symbolic and sweat-inducing than effective in preventing another potential cause of my premature death.
Kansas was hot and humid. Storm clouds often rolled by, sometimes spitting out rain, sometimes reserving it for a further destination. Nearly everyday thunderstorms were predicted but if they did manifest, they never lasted long. The days bled together. I knew if it was a Monday or a Tuesday, as I was keeping track of when our interviews were, but the long, post-solstice days were all surreally similar.
Halfway through our stay, Adrian lamented he didn’t have an entry for his town’s 3rd annual film festival. He had won best documentary the first year but it was Wednesday and the deadline to enter was Saturday. The next morning we took some much needed time to ourselves, and I wrote a short script for him. After that day’s interview, I showed him the script and we decided to go for it. The next day we planned out the shots and Friday we filmed the whole thing. Except one scene.
That night there was once again a chance of thunderstorms but as I got into my tent, I didn’t think much about it. If anything, I was hoping it would rain a little and cool things off.
At 2:30 am I woke up to hard rain and thunder. The rain was more intense than I had hoped. The poles for the rain fly on my tent were broken so I had jerry-rigged it with rope, which had worked so far, but it was an imperfect solution. I was worried it wouldn’t hold, and my tent, my bedding, and I would get soaked from above and from below as the water pooled on my ground tarp. For now, I was dry, but the wind was crushing my tent from one side then the other, straining it to its limits in all directions. Meanwhile, the flashes of lightning illuminated my deformed tent with greater and greater clarity and soon the thunder cracked simultaneously with each strike. I started to get nervous and checked the weather on my phone to see how long the storm was supposed to be. I groaned as I noticed it didn’t look like it was going to let up until morning. I noticed the date. The strange bliss of not being aware of what day it was, evaporated, as I realized it was June 27th. “Of course I’m going to get struck by lightning at the age of 27 on the 27th of June,” I thought to myself. I recalled my former ninjitsu master had been struck by lightning three times and thought “Maybe I’ll survive like he did” but it did little to calm me down.
Then, the storm abated slightly. I thanked God (because that’s what you do in these situations even if you don’t believe in such an idea) and breathed a deep sigh of relief, glad I’d get some sleep. A minute later though, lightning was striking right outside my tent. The thunder sounded like the fabric of reality was being ripped apart and every atom was bellowing in agony. The thunder and the shock of each jagged flash rippled in unison through my body. I felt completely helpless. After maybe half an hour of a continuous barrage of lightning and thunder, I accepted I was going to die.
I didn’t. I was just up until dawn holding my tent together as it flooded around me, and I waited for lightning to strike me down once and for all. Finally, I got some sleep. The clouds kept the morning cool and dark. After about an hour, I woke up. As I walked over to Adrian, who had mostly slept soundly in his van, I noticed a tree had come down not far from my tent. I relayed the story of my night, ate some oatmeal, drank some coffee, laughed about the whole ordeal, and then we shot the final scene of our impromptu film: my death.
For about an hour I lay amidst shell casings on the damp dirt of the gun range. I was the one that had written the script but I hadn’t expected to feel as though I had almost died while acting out my death. I was exhilarated and defeated at the same time. Bugs congregated on the raspberry jam spread over me (my blood) and they bit me mercilessly. It hurt. It was immensely uncomfortable: lying in the dirt with flies biting me and my mortality mocking me each moment I had to think. Clearly, I was still alive.
That same day Adrian edited the film and submitted it. We did it. I survived Kansas. But, I still had to make it home.
I went back by way of Louisville and the West Virginian farm I stayed at on the way out. As I neared Louisville, I called my friend Ryan, who had driven across the country the year before. We bonded over the blah-ness of southern Illinois and Indiana. When I told him I was staying the night in Louisville and planning to join the protests, he cautioned me to be careful. He told me a guy had been shot there a couple of days earlier. I hadn’t been following the news during my trip.
I arrived in Louisville and looked up the news story. The man was 27. His name was Tyler Gerth. He was a White, amateur photographer. Not a bad description for myself. I decided I had to go to the place where he was shot. A few days earlier I saw a friend post that his roommate had gone missing on Mt. Rainier. He was 27 too. Why was this happening to me? To make me afraid I might be next? To make me grateful I’m not?
I went to Jefferson Park in downtown Louisville — the center of the recent protests and the site of Tyler’s death. There, a small encampment was deconstructed, drying out after the big rain that had welcomed me into the city. Volunteers were handing out food and water. There was an air of congeniality and realness: the kind of realness that accompanies a shrine. Images of and messages to Breonna Taylor were everywhere. She was murdered in her home, six months prior, by the police. The three officers responsible for her death were still free. She would have been 27.
Surrounding the park was City Hall, the Department of Justice, and the police station. All were quiet, except, we saw a few people waving from behind bars in the jail that overlooks the park. There, I reflected for a moment and wondered: what am I really afraid of? And why?
I had spent almost a decade with this conviction that I would die young. But based upon what? Nothing more than my own self-loathing and pessimism. Meanwhile, millions of people in America have real reason to fear for their lives daily. Not because of some out-of-the-blue feeling they had — as I did — but because their lives have been disposable in the eyes of our country. Being Black in America has meant receiving a presumptive life sentence of objectification and disposability, a judgment written in the cloaked words “All men are created equal” by the slave owner this city park was named after. It wasn’t until a decade after our founding as a country that the law even considered African-Americans people. And then, they were 3/5ths human, and only for political and economic purposes.
Black lives have not mattered in our country. And so, for African-Americans the threat of death has been constant, echoing around the cities named after oppressors, echoing among the towering police stations, courts, and city halls which protect the wealthy and White and persecute the poor and Black, echoing down the hallways of schools and hospitals meant to provide care and comfort but all too often administer fear and neglect.
Meanwhile, as an affluent White man in America, my own death has been a concept, confronted viscerally on rare occasions. My anxiety over the past 9 days of my trip was intense. I faced reminders of my mortality, took COVID precautions as the world around me didn’t and infections rose, and I physically felt afraid for my life. But, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Black in America and know the country I live in has historically valued my life as a commodity, and now tells me to my face we are equal while shooting my brothers and sisters in the back.
In a city where I didn’t belong, surrounded by people I didn’t know, days after a man my age was murdered where I stood, I wasn’t afraid I was going to die. I was afraid for the people around me standing up against centuries of racist policies and state-sanctioned violence. I was afraid for my Black friends. I was afraid for all of us.
My privilege protected me there in Louisville as it had my whole trip and as it has my whole life. I’m grateful for the relative safety my privilege affords me but I would gladly renounce it. Not because I still want to die, but because I don’t want other people to. My safety should no longer be predicated on others being violently oppressed. We all die someday but we shouldn’t die because of hate and carelessness. We shouldn’t live in fear of our fellow people in the place we call home.
I didn’t want to leave that small activist encampment that night. It felt strange to just stop by like a tourist. I wanted to help, do something. But, I did have things to do. Back home, in my community, with my family, with my friends, with my work. So I paid my respects and left.
Leaving Louisville the next morning the fear of death wasn’t on my mind. It would be back, for sure, next week in the final days of 27, as my residual paranoia lingered. But for now, I was more afraid of the fear I had felt. More afraid of the fear we all feel right now in the face of the pandemic, in the face of tyranny and White supremacy, and in the face of the uncertainty of our future on this planet that we continue to destroy.
I will die, so I might as well not waste my time worrying about it. But will we stop senselessly killing? Will we overcome our fear of The Other? Will we be able to work together to preserve our habitat and continue to evolve as a species? I’m afraid I don’t know.