(author of Rescue Road and Rescued)
Over the years thousands of baby boomers have been inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY to hit the road and look for America. Our soundtrack reflects that never-ending search for something to explain to us who we are and who we were. What does being an American mean?
During our troubles—dust bowl, Great Depression, various panics, wars—answering that question would become even more poignant, and yet at the same time, discounted by some who simply proclaim their pride at being American. Why worry your fool head with philosophical questions of identity? You’re American, and that’s enough!
The fact that I was born here (in New England) and grew up on the west coast was happenstance. I was lucky to have a taste of western lifestyle, the country part as well as the city, and still feel an umbilical cord attached to the older, snugger New England. I don’t know the Midwest well, but my husband grew up in Wisconsin and is forever proclaiming its superiority over all of the other states in the union. But neither of us could say we are proud of being American. We both would agree we are lucky compared to many others in the world. Likewise, our children are lucky to have been born here. They are lucky to be white in a racially charged environment. They are lucky to not to have been born into poverty. But proud? No. That’s simply not the right term.
Peter Zheutlin understands this, and felt the urge, in his sixty-fourth year of life, to do as Steinbeck did and roam the country, to see what he could see. His dog, Albie, nine at the time, is likewise in his last trimester of life and seemed the perfect companion. So Peter packed his BMW convertible (no Rocinantefor him!) with a cover on the backseat for Albie, and off they went.
His trip began somewhat inauspiciously, with lousy weather (it was April) and dreary motels. He headed south first, opposite of what Steinbeck did, because he wanted to chase the good weather. The chase took a while, but eventually the cold rain and snow evaporated into the warmth of spring.
His first search was for where the South begins and the North ends. He traveled through Pennsylvania, into West Virginia, and then into Virginia where he finds a sign designating Route 522 as “The Patsy Cline Highway.” “I could be wrong,” he writes, “but I bet you could scour every road in New England, and maybe the entire Northeast, and not find a highway named for a country western singer.” Peter and Albie were at last in the South. His certainty of this was cemented by a bumper sticker that proclaimed: “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God,” with American and Confederate flags around the trim.
Peter and Albie’s exploration of the South highlighted the real intent of the journey (for Peter, at least; Albie likely came along for the ride): that is, finding a unifying theme in a fractured country. Confederate flags are triggers for some, yet considered sacred by others. Is it possible to bridge that divide and have a conversation with someone who believes that the Civil War was about state’s rights, not about slavery?
As their journey continues, Peter uses Albie as a sort of four-legged ambassador to make introductions easier and less awkward. People open up more when there is an animal to greet. The greeting would present an opening, and soon Peter found himself deep in conversation with a variety of locals. Stereotypes and pre-conceived notions he holds based on appearances, geography, or accoutrements (such as Confederate flags) slip away as he finds fellow Americans quite willing to talk and listen, regardless of differences.
The West likewise offers a vastly different picture of America, as they make their way through Arizona to California to finally touch the Pacific Ocean. They made it across country. Now they have to continue the clockwise journey.
The descriptions of the various towns and parks are inspiring. But I came away from the book with a greater understanding of how vast this country is, and how unsettled, both in terms of the large, unpopulated areas, and the collective mental state. In Beach, North Dakota, while breakfasting at a local café, Peter sees the news about the Santa Fe High School shooting in Houston. The reactions from the various patrons is disheartening. Nowhere is there horror, or compassion, or fear. Instead, they seem to fear only that some “rights” will be taken from them because some mental case opened fire on children. “Beach may not have been the farthest we’d been from home,” Peter writes, “but it sure felt that way.”
Steinbeck’s journey ended long before he actually arrived back home. At some point, he stopped seeing details in the landscape around him; stopped interacting with other travelers. He was done. What was left was simply the dull mechanics of driving.
Peter also reaches that point in their trip, but fortunately he decides to take one last detour and visit old family friends in Ogunquit, Maine, putting a lovely, nostalgic wrap on his journey. “How many times had I sat in this very spot and watched the ocean lap up against these craggy rocks? Then I looked down at Albie. Every time I think I couldn’t love him any more than I do, I do.”