'Heroes of the Frontier': On the Road in Alaska

Acclaimed novelist Dave Eggers returns with a road-tripping tribute to self-discovery in the 49th state.

Over the years, Dave Eggers’s novels have taken place in Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, and post-Katrina New Orleans. His critically acclaimed 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius followed Eggers as he moved from Illinois to California with his siblings in the aftermath of the death of their parents, who died within five months of each other. In his latest book Heroes of the Frontier, which comes out July 26, Eggers heads to Alaska. There, he charts the midlife malaise turned meltdown of Josie, a former dentist in Ohio, who flees domesticity, suburbia, her ex-husband, and a lawsuit back home by embarking on a pinot noir-filled road trip across the 49th state.

The novel follows Josie and her kids, five-year-old Ana and eight-year-old Paul, as they crisscross Alaska in an RV they nickname the Chateau. Along the way, they visit family in Homer, squat in an abandoned ranger’s cabin, and outrun a series of wildfires. They make campfires, explore the woods barefoot, and stalk deer in the forest. Ultimately, their experiences in nature are the catalyst for their own self-realization.

Eggers uses the trio’s escapades and the characters they encounter to explore and make provocative commentary on wide-ranging themes: The American identity, our society’s relationship (or lack thereof) with nature, and the United States’ astounding appetite for violence. And while the book sifts through weighty topics, at its heart Heroes of the Frontier is a story about adventure—and the personal growth that can come from it.

We chatted with Eggers about Heroes of the Frontier, Americans being barbarians, and the beauty of traveling without an itinerary.

Heroes of the Frontier is set in Alaska. Why Alaska?

There are still vast swaths of Alaska that would qualify, more or less, as unspoiled frontier, and it has the sense of incomparable remoteness. When the protagonist Josie sets out, she wants to be as far away as possible from Carl [the father of her children], and for other reasons, she can’t leave the country. She’s trying to think of the farthest away she can possibly get without leaving the U.S.

You spent a month in Alaska researching the book and mentioned that it wasn’t what you expected. Why is that?

I think that you have to go pretty far off the beaten path to find the Alaska that captures our imaginations. That’s different than some other states—Colorado being one, Idaho being another. A lot of parts of Utah and Nevada, you see really raw, startlingly beautiful scenery just about everywhere, and there’s a lot of unspoiled and untouched land really within reach. In Alaska, I think you have to reach a little farther.

Historically the frontier has been a place of endless opportunity, possibility, and reinvention. Is that still true today?

I think so. There’s so much of the world that is still open, very wild, where you can spread out and hear yourself think and not feel like you’re having these urban issues of feeling compressed and surveilled. I’m so thankful and still very optimistic about our ability to preserve open land, and that there is so much frontier still.

Does the frontier still exist in the U.S.?

I’ve got cousins in Boulder and I feel like you go 15 minutes in any direction outside of Boulder and you’re not going to see another soul. Same with Telluride or Aspen. So I think that you can still find frontier, you just really have to get two steps off the beaten path.

I can have the frontier experience in the Marin Headlands [north of San Francisco]. If you ride through the Headlands at dusk, you’ll be alone and you’ll see deer, a bobcat, maybe a rattlesnake, maybe a coyote. It’s not to say that the Headlands is the frontier, but you can have an experience of feeling alone in nature in an area that’s still, to some extent, owned by the wildlife who live there.

In Heroes of the Frontier, it seems that you’re making a commentary on our collective disassociation from nature and its effect on society. What’s the impact?

There’s a passage in the book that talks about kids indoors without access to nature becoming pale and mangy and scratching and biting at their own sores , and I think that there’s some truth to that. I think that access to nature is incredibly healing. There was some study recently that proved this, that a short hike every day or two is as good as a visit to a therapist.

I find that the kids I know who spend a lot of time outside turning over rocks, catching crabs, exploring the shoreline—there’s a glow about them and a yearning for exploration, and also bravery and independence that you can only get when you can explore the outdoors.

One of the book’s themes is the American identity. What does it mean to be American today?

This is one of the questions the book is trying to answer. When Josie leaves her dental practice and is fleeing all that she’s fleeing, she has more time to think about that, and to some extent, the people that she is encountering provoke her to examine that.

A lot of what she’s seeing is the fact that, especially in Alaska and among the people she meets, she’s realizing that Americans are, for better or for worse, still a barbarian race. We see it every day, especially with our incredible tolerance for violence, and our indifference to, or our resistance to, being civilized. The fact that there are more guns than people speaks to the people who are here, the people who are attracted to coming here, who have come here.

I did want to look at specifically our tolerance for violence and the uncertainties of some of our adventures abroad. That’s why Josie has a dalliance with Jim. At a certain point they can’t remember whether we still have soldiers in Afghanistan and how we really are the only nation on Earth, and really the only nation since Rome, that would have such a thing where we would still be conducting a war abroad and the average citizen wouldn’t know whether we’re there or not. I think that's a uniquely American trait—not only our tolerance for violence but our indifference or disinterest in our adventures abroad.

From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Kerouac, the road trip narrative is a staple of American literature. Why did you choose to use it in Heroes of the Frontier?

I like learning new things and seeing new things myself, so the road trip is ideally equally fun for the writer and reader in that you are on a search where everything is uncertain and you don’t know where you’re going next. Especially with Josie and her kids, there’s no itinerary and they’re really being blown around by the wind, and by the wildfires, and by the real or imagined people chasing them. I wanted that type of suspense, if you can call it that.

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You talk about these beautiful places in Alaska being marred by tourist traps. Are there any truly great places left in the world?

Absolutely, but I’ve almost never found them to be the places they’re supposed to be. The place that your guidebook says is beautiful and the place to see I think is a 50-50 proposition. All of my favorite places I’ve ever been are places I didn’t read about or know about, that I just found by wandering.

I feel like there’s so much that hasn’t been mapped or hasn’t been written about or noted in these guidebooks. If you are open to breaking off the path a little bit, breaking out of the group, leaving the bus, and leaving the tour guide, immediately things get a lot better. If you’re willing to go over the hill to where you don’t know what’s over the hill, where you don’t know exactly what you’ll find—that goes back to the frontier, the joy of discovery.

Where are some of your favorite destinations?

My last trip was to the Gaza Strip a month ago. I didn’t expect that to be an incredibly beautiful landscape but it was. Gaza is dealing with incredible hardships on so many levels, but they do have a lot of natural resources and the people there are phenomenally welcoming and resilient.

So, even though I was on a reporting trip there, and what I’ll write about isn’t going to be all good news or anything, I did feel like Gaza—and I had the same experience in Haiti a few years ago—is a place that more people should visit because they could come away with a full understanding of the [place] and the people, as opposed to thinking of these places as purely tragic and downtrodden. Because that’s not true for either place.

I think if you travel with an open mind and an open heart, and give everybody the benefit of the doubt and allow yourself to be shown things by locals and you don’t come in with a set expectation or agenda, then you can come away with places like Gaza or Haiti, which are places that I would visit again in a minute. They’re extraordinary—extraordinary people living with an extraordinary dichotomy of terrible governance, terrible adversity, but also great beauty too—and a lot of things that make life fully human and fully worth living.

Kelley McMillan is a Colorado-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @KelleyRMcMillan or on Instagram @KelleyMcMillan.

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