Drive, interview, sleep, repeat.
For the last six months, Michelle Fishburne of Chapel Hill has turned those four words from a life-changing plan, to a daily routine, and then to a passion. Thousands of miles and more than 150 interviews later, Fishburne is getting ready to hit the road again. This time her destination is San Diego.
The trip to California is the next leg of Fishburne’s “Who We Are Now” project that connects her with people across the country to document their experiences with COVID-19. She has been living in her 2006 Fleetwood Jamboree since the end of July, which she said is comfortable and easy to drive. She spoke with the News of Orange County just before she left Chapel Hill.
News of Orange County: How did the idea of this project originate?
Michelle Fishburne: In the middle of July, I was without a job, notwithstanding submitting 85 customized cover letters. The lease on my house was going to be up on July 31. Since I didn’t know where I was going to work, it didn’t make any sense to move all my stuff to an apartment or a house. I sat in a Target parking lot and said to myself, ‘where am I going to tell the movers to move my stuff in two weeks?’ I realized it would be stupid to do anything other than move it into storage. Then I thought about where I was going to live. I thought, ‘I’ll live in my 2006 Fleetwood Jamboree (an RV).’ It’s still in good shape and I thought I could live someplace pretty, like the beach, and I’ll try to consult my way to the next job. My RV is paid off. It wasn’t a bad image, but it also didn’t feel quite right. I thought if I tried to consult my way to my next job I could get very frustrated and very scared. I’d have to hustle a lot. Maybe I should try to do something different. That’s when “Humans of New York” came to mind. For people who don’t know, Humans of New York is about a decade-old project of a person who went and took photographs of 10,000 people in New York, and he combined the photos with text and stories. He interviewed them. It went viral on the Internet and a book came out of it. People really enjoy hearing other people’s stories. I thought about that. One of the things that’s intrigued me is every time I talk with somebody about their 2020 experience, they say something that surprises me. So, I thought I could do two things: I could have a place to live, in the RV, and I could do something really interesting. I could drive all over the United States and interview people from all walks of life and all different communities to find out how they’ve been affected by 2020 and the pandemic. I’m a geek at heart and I love to travel. The geek plus the traveler created Where We Are Now.
NOC: From the moment you decided what you wanted to do to the moment we’re in right now, has this gone as you expected?
MF: Very differently. I expected I was doing a project, and at the end of December I would be done and that I would show this project to potential employers. Right around the beginning of November, I realized what I was actually doing was a contemporaneous oral history of Americans’ experience during the pandemic. And I know it’s going to be a difficult winter and I had a fiduciary responsibility to continue the project at least through March (2021). That’s when I realized I wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I was doing it for the sake of creating a record for people to look at and historians to look back at. I realized that it is a book, but not like a coffee table book. It’s a book that will be used as a supplementary text by college students and graduate students. This is such an unusual time in our country’s history and I’ve been told by the President of the National Oral History Association that nobody’s doing what I’m doing. Now I understand that there’s a gravitas to it.
NOC: Is this the kind of thing you would like to continue doing?
MF: Yes, if I stay true to my geek roots, even after the pandemic’s over, it could be a continuation. For example, each elected official’s experience during the pandemic has also been worth recording. N.C. Sen. Valerie Fouschee was in Charlotte in a conference when she received a text from the Department of Health and Human Services. She thought they made a mistake in texting her directly. But the text was telling her that the first two positive cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina were in her district. So she left and went back to her district. She knew if there were two then there were more. She also lost several friends to COVID. And there’s Rep. Graig Meyer whose daughter had COVID. There’s so many interviews that could be done, I think it would be fascinating to do interviews of just elected officials and their experience during the pandemic. … Nobody had a playbook. One of the things that newspapers and the press is very good at is covering stories that easily connect with the reader. Whether it’s somebody who has suffered with COVID, or a restaurant that’s closed, to really experience the American experience, you have to talk to ordinary people. You have to talk to elected officials.
NOC: Is there a common thread that runs through the interviews you’ve done?
MF: There is. What I have seen is — what’s now becoming an overused word — is resiliency. Some people have said, “Us Americans are resilient.” I don’t think it’s just Americans. I think what we have seen is something we all share as human beings. We must have been resilient 40,000 years ago. I think that’s how we got here. How we ended up taking over the planet is because we are resilient, resourceful and we’re problem-solvers. We’re adaptable and clever. And we care for each other. I’ve seen resiliency and I’ve seen over and over a very intuitive, innate understanding, and joy in helping each other through this.
NOC: Could I read an interview without geographical clues and know the region the person lives or works?
MF: Initially when I started the project I decided I was not going to identify towns and states for each person. I did it with the assumption that it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. I think that has, for the most part, played out. If I told you that there was a woman who owned a barber shop for 27 years, and that when she had to close down, her customers gave her money to support herself and one guy gave her half of his stimulus check, would you be able to guess whether that was urban or rural? It’s fascinating. Almost every time I speak to someone in a small town, they say to me “We take care of each other. That’s just was rural America does.” Sometimes they’ll take the next step and say they don’t think it’s that way in the bigger cities. And then I talk with people in the cities and, when it’s a city like New York and they’re in neighborhoods, and you see the same vendors, the same place where you buy flowers, I’ve asked people, ‘Do you support each other as a community?’ The response is similar, but not quite as quick. To be honest, I do think rural parts of America are better at taking care of each other. There are fewer people and the needs are more obvious.
NOC: How is the response to COVID-19 different from place to place?
MF: The interviews in the parts of the country where there’s a lot more space tend to be different. For example, in October in Shamrock, Texas, the movie theater was open, people were eating inside restaurants. They had only 20 COVID cases since the whole thing started, and seven people went to the hospital and were later discharged. You walk up and down the street and nobody has on a mask and this was in October. We’re such a huge country, to say that everybody should be thinking about something the same way ignores reality. That having been said, I mask up and socially distance and I haven’t gotten Covid. Some people would say I shouldn’t be out there traveling in my RV during a pandemic, but I’ve also been told that the value of the contemporaneous oral history I am getting is important for posterity. Trying to get those oral histories after the fact changes their complexion. You can’t do some of these oral histories over Zoom. A lot of this is built on trust. You can’t always establish that trust over Zoom. Also, it’s important for me to see the context in which the person is living to be able to understand how to ask the questions and how to interpret what they’re saying in their interviews.
NOC: Were you already a traveler?
MF: Yes. I took my kids on a 10-month trip all over the United States when I was road-schooling them. I homeschooled them when they were four and seven. And then I did it again for four months when they were eight and 10. The concept of jumping in my RV and heading out to Wyoming and back for the first leg of my trip to gather the oral histories, to me that was just like driving from Chapel Hill to Durham. To me, driving this 30-foot motor home is simpler, in a way, than driving the Ford Explorer I had. If I had to choose one to drive on the highway I would choose the motor home. The mirrors are better and I’m confident whenever I change lanes.
NOC: How do you pick your destination?
MF: The first time I decided I’d head out to Wyoming and back and be back in time to vote in person. It took a long time for me to figure out how to plan the route. Driving was easy. The hard part was figuring out how to find the sweet spots. How to find a town in which I could get a quick sense of it and I could get really good interviews. I look for towns that are a certain size, not too big. When I send emails out to big towns, I don’t get responses. When I send emails out to small towns, they answer them. I know I’m going to go from A to B, so I first look to a community’s Facebook page. I’m able to see what kind of posts on the Chamber of Commerce page, or the local newspaper. When I went out to Wyoming, I planned to go to Cheyenne, but no one returned my emails. So I looked at Pine Bluff, Wyoming. I went on their Facebook page and saw they had a kite festival. I thought about what people on the east coast would give to be able to have a kite festival at this time. It sounded so joyful. When I showed up in Pine Bluff to interview the woman, she asked why I drive all that way to interview her about a kite festival and I said, ‘You just don’t understand. To you it’s no big deal because you have such wide-open space and you have only 900 people living in this community. Back east, the thought of having something like a kite festival is far off.”
NOC: Are there any places you haven’t been that you want to go?
MF: I’m more pragmatic. I know I’ve got to get from A to B. I am trying to cover as many states as I can. I will be going from California to Las Vegas, so I’ll pick up Nevada. This trip is about America’s national treasures: the people. I can do another trip, later in life, that’s about America’s other national treasures. Driving through Colorado, I waved to the Rockies. ‘See you next time.’ This is a 7 a.m. to midnight job every day.
NOC: Just traveling the country seeing places and national parks often helps people realize how big the country is. But would you say driving around the country meeting people can actually make the country seem smaller?
MF: Yes. The more people you meet in different places, the more you realize the commonalities of those people and yourself. The country begins to pull closer together. The general feeling I have is ‘wow, this country is huge.’ But on these trips, the general feeling I’ve had is ‘wow, this is home. This is my country.’ It’s felt intimate. Every time I roll into another town it feels like another part of my home. Before I set off on this adventure, and after doing a lot of “doom-scrolling” on Twitter, I wasn’t sure of what our country was. I didn’t know if our country was the place I had grown up in. As I headed out, it was with trepidation. I had expected to find situations where people were angry and where I felt really uncomfortable, and maybe unwelcome. But mile after mile, that whole sense of a division, of separation between me and the country just started falling away.
You can read Who We Are Now interviews by going to whowearenow.us. You can also follow on Instagram @whowearenowusa.