"They've all come to look for America."
—Paul Simon, "America"
The cross-country road trip has long been celebrated in literature, film, song and even a television series. It ranks with baseball and apple pie as a quintessential American experience.
Philip Caputo's "The Longest Road" is the latest effort to chronicle such a journey. In 2011, Caputo — author of 15 works of fiction, nonfiction and memoir — traveled 8,000 miles, pulling a vintage Airstream trailer, with his wife and two English setters. Together they drove from Key West, up the Natchez Trace, across the Great Plains and up the Pacific Coast.
As he toured a countryside ravaged by the effects of recession and torn by political disunity, Caputo asked himself what it is that keeps us together as a nation. He posed this question to ordinary Americans that he met along the way. The responses he received are evident in this warm and hopeful book.
Readers who enjoyed Caputo's work may find the following personal favorites of mine to be of interest as well. All are available through the Newport Beach Public Library.
In the fall of 1960, John Steinbeck set out with his French poodle, Charley, in a specially made camper he called Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. "Travels with Charley" was published in 1962 and was both a critical and commercial success, reaching the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Steinbeck set out to rediscover an America from which he felt disconnected. He and Charley traveled more than 10,000 miles, starting and ending in New York, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, through the Salinas Valley, where many of his books are set, and across Texas and the Deep South.
In recent years, some critics have accused Steinbeck of fictionalizing parts of the book. The introduction to Penguin's 50th anniversary edition acknowledges that the author may have invented some dialogue and other details. Still, such revelations do not detract from this narrative by a renowned writer about a simpler time when America was on the cusp of a more turbulent era.
In 1979, William Least Heat-Moon drove more than 13,000 miles along the back roads of small-town America. His account of this trip, "Blue Highways" (a reference to the color used for such roads on old highway maps), was published in 1982 and spent 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Heat-Moon, who is part Osage, hit the road behind the wheel of a Ford van he called Ghost Dancing, equipped only with a bed, camping stove, portable toilet and two books for company — "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman and "Black Elk Speaks."
Separated from his wife and laid off from his teaching position, Heat-Moon was looking for "a place where a man can lose himself." Plotted on a map, the circular shape of his travels gives his quest a sense of completion, which suggests he may have found what he was looking for.
Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" was published in 1974 by William Morrow after being rejected by 121 publishers. Now considered a cult classic of American literature, Pirsig's book has sold more than 5 million copies and has been translated into multiple languages.
This narrative of a father-son motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California engages the reader as a travelogue, a journey of self-discovery and a philosophical search for the middle ground between Eastern and Western notions of how best to live one's life.
Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is considered by many to be the defining work of the Beat Generation. Completed in 1951 but not published until 1957, Kerouac's fictional account of his travels is written in a stream-of-consciousness style.
Kerouac's fictional alter-ego, Sal Paradise, and friends are primarily concerned with their personal quest for meaning through experience — as abetted by jazz, poetry and drug use. Their stark opposition to the conformity of the 1950s is a forerunner of the sweeping social changes of the 1960s.
Looking for a good book to read? The road beckons.
CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at http://www.newportbeachlibrary.org. For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, please contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.