#TripLit: The Longest Road

We pause to celebrate America in July, and so it’s the perfect month for the publication of Philip Caputo’s new memoir, The Longest Road. Caputo’s road trip follows in the tracks of three storied odysseys: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.

These are big, profound, almost legendary titles, and it’s easy to imagine such company intimidating even the Pulitzer Prize-winning Caputo. Yet his narrative flows as easily – and seductively – as the lines of the vintage Airstream trailer he and his wife, Leslie, haul behind them on their 5,000-mile journey.

Caputo states the occasion for his quest at the beginning of the book:

“With enough time, gas, money, and nerve, I could drive from the southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road. At one end, I would look upon the Gulf Stream and the Southern Cross, and at the other, the Arctic Ocean and the Northern Lights. I would leave my country for part of the journey, but not my language or my culture. And possibly I would discover along the way what Inupiat Americans and Cuban Americans and every other kind of American had in common besides a flag.”

The year he undertakes this epic journey is 2010, as the economy is collapsing and the country’s social and political fabric seems to be unraveling.

As this odyssey unfolds, we encounter the Natchez Trace, “the most enchanting road in America…a kind of elongated national park that carries motorized traffic.” In Kansas, we roll into a rodeo town full of “pickup trucks and gooseneck stock trailers; cows, calves, horses, and bulls with mayhem in their eyes; young cowboys in straw hats…with girlfriends in tight jeans.”

In South Dakota we chance upon a trio of bison — each one weighing close to a ton, “humped shoulders mantled in a knotty brown cape, hindquarters the color of burned wood, horns burnished by sunlight hooking out from a shaggy head as big as a Volkswagen’s front end, dripping a beard and perforated by tiny black eyes.”

And in Washington state we marvel at a world of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. “We paced around one cedar,” Caputo writes, “and estimated its circumference to be greater than twenty feet. It had been a sapling when Columbus mistook a Caribbean island for India; in its adolescence when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

In this way Caputo is keenly attuned to the natural wonders of our country, and to the time-perspective they bestow. But he is equally attuned to the human wonders, and movingly portrays a cavalcade of fellow travelers, restaurant workers, small-town business owners, and other unforgettable characters, from a West Virginia couple who have given up all they owned to succor the lost and the addicted in Florida, to Native American shaman and Food Channel star Ansel Woodenknife, a culinary entrepreneur whose mission is to help sew the U.S. into a seamless blanket of cultures.

While Caputo’s account has its moments of disillusion and near disaster, in its entirety Caputo creates a kind of verbal fireworks display that illuminates the United States in all its diverse and yet indivisible glory.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @don_george.

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