Nonfiction - Travel
Finished on December 1, 2021
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
In The Longest Road, one of America's most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.
Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. And a question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he'd drive from the nation's southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question.
So it was that in 2011, in an America more divided than in living memory, Caputo, his wife, and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as "Fred" and "Ethel") from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today's United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart.
Had I read the back cover blurb, I would have know that The Longest Road is less about an RV road trip and more about America and what holds it together (or drives it apart). I'm not sorry I read Caputo's memoir, but I would have enjoyed it more had he shared more details about his actual camping experiences along the way from Florida to Alaska. My favorite parts were in the early chapters when Caputo and his wife were learning all the ins-and-outs about pulling a travel trailer and then later toward the end of the book when they reached the Pacific Northwest and headed into Alaska. The middle section was a slog and I was tempted to quit, but I'm glad I didn't since I'm in the middle of planning a road trip to Alaska and found a couple of tidbits of information to add to my notes.
These passages spoke to my inner nomad:
I had only one hard-and-fast rule: avoid interstates. They are predictable and boring, and their uniformity somehow erases changes in landscape; you can drive six hundred miles, from forests into desert, and feel that you haven’t gone anywhere. In a sense, you haven’t. You have no idea about the lives of the people in the towns and cities you’ve bypassed at seventy miles an hour.
The total distance—11,741 miles—gave me sticker shock. Round it up to twelve thousand. Almost halfway around the world! It seemed slightly mad, but then it might do me good. To make such an epic road trip, discovering places I’d never been, rediscovering others, never knowing what I’d find beyond the next curve or hill, would be to recapture the enchantment of youth, a sense of promise and possibility. The cicada chirped incessantly in my head. I clicked back to the first map. Looking at it brought on a mixture of eagerness and reluctance. The buzzing grew more shrill. If you don’t go now, geezer, you never will. I listened to my inner cicada, and the uneasiness subsided. If I’d learned anything, it was that the things you do never cause as much regret as the things you don’t.
I've struggled with this review, trying to figure out why I don't care for this author's narrative voice. Nearly every woman he encounters on his journey is described by her hair color & length, as well as her physique. He also mentions the appearance of men, but with less attention than with the women. There's also a hint of arrogance to his vignettes and this particular passage made me dislike Caputo even more:
Leslie stared in silence, first at Ethel, [the Airstream] then at me. Three marriages and a few relationships in between qualify me to make this observation about Homo sapiens femalis, subspecies Americanus: they are congenitally incapable of apologizing for a mistake because they are incapable of admitting they've made one. It's always the guy's fault. Number two son Marc, married for a decade, has likewise noticed this trait and has revised the old riddle about the falling tree not making a sound: "If a man were all alone in a forest with no woman there, would he still be wrong?"
It's been many years since I've read Neil Peart's memoir, Ghost Rider* (click on the link for my review), but it was much more enjoyable than this book by Philip Caputo.
*Peart's memoir is about his travels (on his BMW "adventure-touring" motorcycle) across Canada & the Yukon, over to Alaska, down the West Coast of the U.S. to Mexico and Belize before heading back to Canada. It's one I keep meaning to re-read.