Perhaps more than any nation in the world, our country celebrates the romance of the open road, reveling in the unexpected adventure and pure discovery to be found across a varied yet united landscape. These days, however, it seems this country is more divided than ever — not necessarily geographically, but certainly along cultural, economic, and social lines.
So what keeps us together as the United States of America? That’s the question that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Caputo, author of the classic Vietnam War memoir “A Rumor of War,” seeks to answer in “The Longest Road.” Over the years, he writes, the “individualism in which Americans pride themselves had curdled into a pathological selfishness. Yet there were still some who believed that we’re all in this together.”
Following his father’s death and approaching 70, an age that “has the unmistakable ring of mortality” to it, Caputo’s memory of a trip to a remote island off the coast of Alaska spurred him to begin planning an epic road trip — from the southernmost point of the United States, Key West, Fla., to the northernmost, Deadhorse, Alaska. “Without a design,” however, “a journey becomes aimless wandering,” and so he sat down to map out the trip he would take with his wife and two dogs — and not in a massive, decked-out tour bus or top-of-the-line RV, but rather in a classic, 14-foot Airstream trailer pulled behind a pickup truck.
Caputo is an amiable guide and he writes with a casual yet searching tone similar to that of Ian Frazier; and fans of Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia” will find many parallels. Caputo’s encounters with a motley assortment of characters — including missionaries, politicians, rednecks, Tea Party activists, vagabonds, nomads, wage slaves, and thrill-seeking outdoorsmen, among dozens of others — were generally genial and helpful, though he constantly struggled with “how to stay current without latching onto every trend, how to age without growing into a cranky old fart mired in the past.”
It’s a struggle he met with only partial success — the author gets curmudgeonly at times, especially regarding technology — and the same can be said for his conclusions about what keeps the country together. Most of the folks he meets express similar sentiments about what binds us, but Caputo never ties them together, often meandering into historical detours that only occasionally advance the narrative.
From the idea that “a spirit of generosity arising from a recognition that we are not islands unto ourselves but parts of a greater whole” to the belief that “there’s enough room for each person to live their life and their dreams, according to the land, not according to man-made things, our government and all that,” Caputo’s interview subjects all seem to recognize the country’s problems but believe strongly in its virtues as a nation of freedom, liberty, optimism, and opportunity.
Ultimately, this is not a particularly insightful exploration of the American psyche (for that, see George Packer’s recent book, “The Unwinding”), but rather a mostly engaging travelogue of a remarkable journey packed with plenty of intriguing tidbits for armchair travelers (though many will wish for more pictures). As with most journeys, the final destination is often beside the point, and so when the travelers finally reach Deadhorse, “the strangest and ugliest town in the country, so unabashedly, unapologetically ugly that it’s fascinating,” the feeling of an anticlimax is hard to avoid.
“I was looking for a reincarnation of myself as I was half a century ago, a college dropout under Kerouac’s spell,” Caputo writes by way of an explanation for his trip. He may not have unearthed his old self, but he demonstrates an impressive sense of adventure for a 70-year-old in this chockablock tale of America and its many colors.Eric Liebetrau, managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.