AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Justice Clarence Thomas is now, as throughout his career, in the crosshairs of the American left. His recent opinions have again marked him out as the great defender of the Constitution, common sense, and the natural law tradition in jurisprudence, so it is delightful to see him being referred to publicly as “The People’s Justice.”
How did he get to be that way? Those who have read his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, or seen “Created Equal,” Michael Pack’s marvelous 2020 documentary about the justice’s life, will know that Justice Thomas may have attained the commanding heights of the U.S.’s judicial branch of government, but he started out in the ranks of the ordinary and even the down-and-out. That he has never forgotten those days may be seen from the end of the film where the Justice is shown traveling “the regular parts” of this country in an RV with his wife, Ginni. Unlike too many Washington figures who style themselves as “the people’s” candidates, the senior member of our highest court actually gets out among the people and sees the country in which they and he live.
Oh, that we would all be more like Justice Thomas. The American road trip is a democratizing tradition in a good way. Traveling together in a car builds memories for families and friends. It teaches us about the vastness of our country, its beauty, and the reality of all those ordinary people out there—traveling alongside us and working in their own regions to make things work. I know that’s been my experience over many years. In fact, it’s been my experience for the last three days.
We just arrived in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, after a 2,200-mile drive from Sugar Land, Texas. We have been taking road trips for years, but this is a new one since we just moved to Texas last summer. And all of those lessons have been ours yet again.
We began Wednesday morning in southeast Texas. While Confucius didn’t quite say that a journey of many thousand miles begins with a single kid barfing, most parents will know the truth of the statement. And yet even that event highlighted the kindness of Americans. When my wife was looking for cleaning supplies in the gas station, the woman at the counter commiserated because her own daughter had been throwing up that day.
From that rough beginning, we first had to make our way across Texas itself. A joke has it that Texas is so big that it can fit the entire United States, the moon, and another Texas inside its own borders. All I know is that it took us about nine-and-a-half hours to make our way across to the point where we could cut up through New Mexico.
What a world it is! Before I moved to Texas, I thought the whole place was one big dusty, dry patch of land. And yet there are many different types of terrain in the state, many of them quite beautiful. True, west Texas is much as I imagined it, but there is a kind of austere beauty even to that. It is a good preparation for the grandeur of the red, rocky terrain of New Mexico. Everywhere one looks, there are magnificent rock formations rising into the sky, God’s own sun-drenched Gothic structures pointing us heavenward.
In fact, all the western states are filled with rocks, hills, and mountains of all sorts that are still a miracle to this boy raised on the flat land of northern Indiana. Even at 75 miles per hour, one sees the different kinds of country coming and appreciates how rich this land is. The rolling hills of Idaho are very different from the angular rocks of New Mexico and Utah, homey more than majestic.
The best part of the drive by far was the last part along the top of Oregon. U. S. 84 follows along the beautiful Columbia River for many miles. Driving along this route in the afternoon is an opportunity to see the mighty “River of the West” glistening and flowing along beside the Cascades, those evergreen mountains. One sees not only the mighty power of God but also the ingenuity of man, made in the divine image, in the three dams that break up the river. My wife, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, remarked on her own feeling of homecoming as we traveled this way toward Portland. The politics of the coast may be a mess, but the land itself is a gift.
Not just the land but the animals on it. No matter how old they get, our own children love to see the herds of horses, cattle, and sheep that are seemingly omnipresent in the west. There were a great many calves and lambs to be seen on this trip. Though our seven-year-old begged, we resisted the suggestion to buy some sheep for sale in New Mexico.
Perhaps the children don’t see it yet. Or perhaps they do not know that they see it yet, but for me one of the best parts of these trips is indeed seeing regular people in what Justice Thomas calls “the regular parts” of the country. When we stopped for gas in New Mexico, we saw not only men in boots but men with spurs.
It’s those stops for gas that my wife says she likes best. The gas station is the most democratic place on earth. Everyone low and high and in between must stop to go to the bathroom, to get gas, to clean up the messes their kids made in the car before them. It is there that one meets them. It is there that one sees the bikers and the business executives, the truckers and the salespeople. It is there that one sees the young men in our country who are working with their hands, with machinery, with animals, with things in the real world.
We haven’t run into Justice Thomas and his wife yet. Perhaps one day we might. But it is probably more important that we are seeing the regular parts of the country and running into the kind of regular people that he likes to be among. There is something healing about the journeys we take across this country. Something that reminds us of what we have and share in this great country. Something that reminds us of how much we need all the different kinds of people who make up the fabric of this place.
Perhaps our country might look and feel different if more of those whom we entrust with legislative, executive, and judicial tasks were taking a road trip every summer to see the land, meet the people, and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy here in this land flowing with milk, honey, and so many other gifts.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.