He was a Road


Mark Baumer/Instagram

From The New Yorker:

Since November 9th, many Americans have been searching for ways to incorporate political activism into their everyday lives, to get out of the echo chambers that keep them among only like-minded people. Baumer was an eccentric model for both, someone for whom activism was both a life style and a form of self-expression. He walked through tiny highway-side towns and filmed himself interacting with locals, and often spoke on his feeds about how surprisingly good the people he encountered were. Baumer’s friend Blake Butler said that he would “walk through the small weird bedrock towns, they would ask him what he was doing … then they would look at his feet and offer him a pair of shoes.” Baumer has said that he was sometimes offered several pairs a day, by people who slowed their cars down and opened the driver’s-side window. “He would explain he didn’t need them.”

Butler met Baumer in 2008, after Butler published some of Baumer’s writing in the online literary magazines he worked for. “He was a great sentence writer, he destroyed sentences,” Butler told me. “He had to break up everything that was in front of him. I know he was capable of writing conventional things that people would take seriously, but that didn’t interest him.” A short story that Baumer published in BOMB magazine in 2013, called “Yachts,” is narrated by an infant whose penis abandons him to go to South America, leaving behind a note that reads “I want to be a fascist dictator, I want it all.” The penis travels the world, sending postcards back. A bamboo forest is killed off, and the penis develops a taste for corporate takeovers. The story ends as the narrator is left alone to paraphrase his father’s thesis on postcolonialism into a tape recorder. BOMB magazine has the story tagged as “experimental writing,” but it’s one of Baumer’s more traditionally literary pieces, with the same sweet, funny, hopeful absurdism that characterizes his other work.

Like almost everything Baumer published, “Yachts” was interspersed with photos from his life: a truck parked in front of a suburban home, a cat drinking out of a toilet. On his walk across country, he posted photos, videos, poems, and blog posts daily, swinging the camera from his face to the road while talking about what he saw. He often picked up discarded objects along the side of the road. On January 12th, day ninety-one of his journey, he found a worksheet from what he guessed was a Bible-study class, educating its subjects about social-media use. His videos were intercut by rants about the political causes he was obsessed by—access to clean water, the degradation of the environment, social discrimination. His style was to yell into the camera, in a voice reminiscent of Andy Kaufman, or of a sardonic game-show host.

“The Tragic Death of Mark Baumer..” Anna Heyward, The New Yorker