How the granddaughter of Korean immigrants found an oasis from racism during a pandemic-era cross country road trip through National Forests and Grasslands

I’d never understood how truly flat the Earth might appear before our drive from New York to California split off I-70 into the seemingly endless plains, wind, and skies outside of Wichita, Kansas.

Somewhere north of Oklahoma’s panhandle, this infinite belly of the country yawned around me, my dog, and my partner, as we cruised between 18-wheelers, through a midsummer hailstorm, and into a glaring crimson sunset. At nightfall, streaks of heat lightning silently broke bright white cracks in the inky black as we entered Cimarron National Grassland. The hot, stormy air whipped up dust, and the warm, sweet aroma of cow patties filled our noses.

In that expanse of land, I exhaled a sigh of relief knowing there wouldn’t be a soul around for miles. The wild isolation was a welcome shelter from the crazy-making brutalities of other people.

These were strange circumstances to be taking the American road trip I'd spent my entire 20s pining for. About a month prior, my parents called to tell me my grandfather had been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.

“We don’t know how long he has—two months, maybe two years,” my dad said. “It’d be really nice if you could come out to see him.”

This was the first summer of the pandemic, when the virus was just beginning to trickle out from major U.S. cities into the rest of the country. Flying was out of the question, so I spent my evenings leading up to the trip Googling potential routes, obsessively cross referencing them with the most updated COVID-19 maps and statistics.

Photo by Shannon Lee

The author's grandparents.

Plotting our route through lesser-known towns and National Forest campgrounds across America, a spiraling anxiety began to metastasize within me. As an Asian American, I’m used to bracing myself for random racist micro-aggressions, like being asked where I’m “really from,” and laughing them off.

Because of this, even before the virus reached the U.S., I knew its presumed origins in China would harden racist attitudes in America. What I wouldn’t imagine was that this virus’s arrival would be followed by a conflict-filled summer, catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, that brought forth a reckoning around policing and systemic racism. Laughing off casual instances of ostensible ignorance was no longer an adequate way to cope.

Over a year into the pandemic, the hashtag #StopAsianHate keeps trending on my social media feeds. This past March, eight people were murdered in the Atlanta spa shootings, six of them Asian American women. In Los Angeles, my brother and his girlfriend were flipped off and given the “chink eye” gesture by a white woman sitting in her car as they took their daily neighborhood walk. And in New York, the NYPD reported a 1,900 percent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020.

My grandparents moved from Gwangju, South Korea into a small condo in Chicago in 1975 with my dad and his four younger siblings, hoping for a fresh start and a better future. In Gwangju, they had been farmers, growing and selling watermelon and rice. In Chicago, my grandfather became a Greyhound bus mechanic. My grandmother, for a little while, ran a Chinese restaurant. Both spoke only a handful of English phrases. Less than a decade after they settled in their new hometown, in what would become one of the most infamous hate crimes against an Asian American in U.S. history, Vincent Chin was murdered by two white men in the nearby city of Detroit. At 27 years old, Chin was just a little older than my father at the time.

Somehow, despite the loneliness and uncertainty that came with being immigrants in a bustling Midwestern city, my grandparents found a way to call this land home. Coming from the farmlands of South Korea, they rooted themselves in what they knew and understood best—the soil, trees, mountains, and rivers. On rare leisurely weekends, all six of them went camping at Wisconsin Dells State Park a few hours away. Laughing around a campfire, they piled kimchi onto their hotdogs and played the Korean version of rock, paper, scissors. Years later, when they moved to California, they visited National Parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Arches, in awe of their impossible grandeur. My grandfather said Sedona is where people went to meet God. Here in this foreign country, my grandparents were able to feel understood and embraced by the splendor of America’s vast landscapes.

Photo by Shannon Lee

Camping at Cimarron National Grassland

I thought of my grandparents often as we drove west toward my family. Several times when we stopped to fill gas, I encountered groups of unmasked men smoking cigarettes in front of convenience stores. I eyed them warily as they shot me glances back. Scenarios played in my head: What would I do if one called me a chink? Several of my friends had been spit on by antimaskers. What if that happened? How had my grandfather dealt with the racist vitriol that came with being Asian American at that time in Chicago?

But as we set up camp, tucked away in a remote corner of Kansas, my fears became distant reality. Lying in my sleeping bag, I listened to the summer wind buffeting the sides of our tent, and the faint lowing of cattle far yonder. Absent were the swishing of cars, rumbling of engines, and murmurs of conversation. The day’s worrying evaporated into the arid night as I drifted, imagining the sprawl of open lands that lay behind and before us: The verdant sweetness of the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana; the wild plains surrounding us here on the Cimarron; and the red, jagged canyons and fragrant, twisting ponderosas of Arizona’s Coconino National Forest.

These ancestral lands of the myaamiki, Lënape, Bodwéwadmik, saawanwa in Hoosier; Comanche in Cimarron; and Havasupai and Yavapai Indians in Coconino invited me, a second-generation Korean American, to also call them home, the love for this land like a gift I’d inherited from my grandparents.

Landscapes need no language to express their profundity; wordlessly, they instill in us courage, solace, and otherworldly wonder.

When we arrived at my grandfather’s side, he had a photo book of America's natural wonders. My mom and dad sat next to him as he flipped through the pages from his deathbed, in awe of purple mountains and fruited plains. Landscapes need no language to express their profundity; wordlessly, they instill in us courage, solace, and otherworldly wonder.

Back on the prairie, we woke the next morning to watch the sun rise. I stood in that growing August light as it transformed the sky above into a radiant, grinning blue, warming the infinity of green stretching around us. Petite sunflowers dotted the prairie as far as I could see. Here, 1,000 miles from home and a complete stranger to this land, I felt welcome.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a writer and editor based out of New York, where she writes about art, ecology, and (sometimes) the Asian American experience. She is currently an associate editor at Artsy.

National Forest Foundation