My journey across America yielded many thoughts and reflections upon the experience. My written reflections, no doubt, do not progress chronologically, because as my mind wanders, it seeks threads that connect one experience to another. One major theme of this trip (and perhaps any long journey) is that of unpredictability and vulnerability. We are at the mercy of the elements, be they human or meteorological.
We drove through Kansas on the return leg of our trip. Before we left our home and even during the trip, family, friends, and strangers warned me about tornadoes. I really didn’t need to hear that as I’m already prone to the special brand of Bosnian dread of catastrophe, nevertheless I did my best to laugh mildly at their warnings. I suppose, in the end, there was nothing I could do if I got sucked in by a tornado.
The flatness of Kansas was welcome after the drive through the canyons of Utah and mountains of Colorado. But that flatness became less comforting once I realized that there would be miles and miles of land ahead of us with hardly any towns. True, it was beautiful—the plains were glittering with shades of yellow and brown, as if touched by Van Gogh’s brush.
Signs here and there appeared that manifested human beliefs in the middle of empty but fertile soil: “TRUMP 2024” and “Kill Relativism, Not Babies.” People’s thoughts live on and they’re not ghosts in these wide-open spaces of fly-over America. The people here, and their ideas, are very much alive and they do exist. They should not be ignored. Human hands made those signs. Human hands dug the dirt in order to place the sign securely into the soil, so that it wouldn’t blow away.
We stopped at a burger joint for some dinner. My son was sipping lemonade and eating fries as he was observing some unruly kids at the other end of the restaurant. He was curious. “Look, mama, that girl is not wearing any shoes.” He was expecting an explanation from me but I wasn’t sure what to say. “Yes, it appears she left her shoes at home,” was all I managed to say. In addition, the high-pitched screams of the toddler at the table near to us were not what I needed to hear while eating and nursing a headache.
It was already dark when we left the restaurant. We had already driven many hours from Denver, Colorado, hoping to reach Columbia, Missouri. It was a tall order but we reached our destination in Missouri in the early morning, traversing more than 700 miles in one day.
Before that safe landing, however, we had many more miles to go through the endless flatness of Kansas. As we got into the car, my husband remarked on the weather. “This is strange. There is no wind. At all.” The temperature was unusually hot and the air was stifling, and absolutely everything was still. The color of the sky was like nothing I’d ever seen before: mustard-yellow. We got into the car and drove away from the restaurant, continuing our journey home.
Just as I was getting comfortable and relaxed, relishing the thought that we were no longer driving through the windy and mountainous roads of Colorado, I turned around in the car and saw an enormous bolt of lightning in the distance. The clouds, which we witnessed earlier during the day, were heavy and rounded, known as mammatus clouds. Somewhere in the distance, it was raining.
I tried to forget the lightning but since it was night, the enormous and ominous line across the sky that appeared in intervals was difficult to ignore. I became overtaken by anxiety. Much like in the desert Southwest, here too, there was nowhere to hide. The possibilities of an endless landscape may sound romantic in theory but when the weather turns ominous, so do one’s thoughts on openness and its possibilities. The default path of my mind, after years of Eastern European habituation, is always to discover the road to catastrophe. In fact, in Bosnia, we call many things katastrofa—catastrophe, even in a conversation about otherwise superficial matters.
Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon writes beautifully about this Bosnian phenomenon of expecting catastrophe. It can certainly suggest an echo of big, bad things that have happened, like war, or having been a refugee. Hemon writes that in his family, the word katastrofa was employed constantly: “We use it all the time, deploying it in the contexts that would be less appropriate in English. My mother would thus reprimand my father by saying, ‘Ti si, ćale, katastrofa!’ (translatable as: You, Pop, are a catastrophe!) because he left a trail of dirty socks all the way to the bedroom.”
But, Hemon rightly insists that the Bosnian version of catastrophe does also include very serious matters. So you end up having a hierarchy of catastrophes in your mind and are able to distinguish one from another. This also means that you are able to analyze the levels of danger and annoyance. Almost all of my default thinking involves one catastrophe or another or multiple catastrophes piled on top of one another. This really isn’t a psychological condition. It’s a standard Slavic, Bosnian condition. It runs through my body like that lightning that I was trying so desperately to ignore.
So, there I was, with my husband and our son, driving through Kansas, enveloped in my Bosnian soul that is poetic but also pessimistic, attempting to override it with my American mind. We kept driving, kept moving along the dark plains. To keep moving no matter what—this is where my two sides meet, the Bosnian and the American. Whatever the motivation, hope or fear, both sides will move along no matter what. But in this instance American will was overriding Bosnian fear, even if for just a brief moment.
We arrived in Columbia, Missouri around 3:30 a.m., and found a nice hotel to get some rest before continuing our journey. Later, just like many others, I watched the intense and dramatic footage of the great tornado ripping apart everything it touched. We missed it by a day. Catastrophe averted.