Hit The Road

In his book “The Longest Road,” author Philip Caputo writes of his experience covering a nomadic people group in Israel. An anthropologist familiar with the tribe's culture said they sometimes move not to follow herds or water, but just for the sake of moving. It seems ingrained in their genetic code.

While my family is anything but nomadic—I am a fifth-generation Kansan—we do, every so often, get the itch to throw stuff in the car and just go. The vacations of my childhood consisted of loading our minivan to (and sometimes beyond) capacity and covering multiple states over a span of two to three weeks.  Mom’s genealogical research usually served as our guide, as she always had a list of small, ancestor-infested towns she wanted to visit. 

While the House of Wen has not yet been brave enough to try a road trip of that caliber, we did venture to Branson last year, and will do so again this summer. Branson was a favorite destination of my grandparents, who liked it even before it was cool. Their primary vacation pastime was fishing, and by “fishing” I mean “go for at least a month in the fall and another month in the spring, take the boat, rent a condo, and do nothing but fish from dawn to dusk.” While Branson has grown dramatically in the last thirty years, we visited the site of my grandparents' old condo last summer and found it happily unchanged. It was as close to time travel as I’ll ever come.

When we can't travel, or when I get the itch but it's not the right time yet, I’ve done the next best thing: read my two favorite travel books. I read these books faithfully every summer, and when we do plan a vacation, I try to read these around that time. The first, and the one I’ve had the longest, is Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America." It remains one of my all-time favorite books and the only book I’ve had to replace twice (the first copy was loaned and never returned, and frequent rereadings wore out the second. Come to think of it, my third copy is looking pretty shabby...) 

Written in the late 1980s, “The Lost Continent” is the story of Bryson’s epic road trip all around the United States. Having lived abroad for many years and reeling from the death of his father, Bryson decided to see the nation of his youth, visiting many favorite childhood vacation spots and traveling through a few places he'd always wanted to see. His travelogue is a snapshot of the US as it was thirty years ago, and it is amusing and eye-opening to see how the country has changed even during my lifetime.

Bryson’s beautiful word pictures paint a setting like no other, and he is a direct influence on that aspect of my own writing. Plus, he's hilarious in a droll, snarky way (which is my favorite way). Even in his mid-thirties, he was his amusing grumpy-old-man self.  The opening sentences never fail to bring a smile to my face. “I come from Des Moines," he writes. "Somebody had to.”

The other book, Philip Caputo’s “The Longest Road,” is a more recent discovery. Published in 2010, it details Caputo’s journey from the southernmost point in the United States (Key West, Florida) to the northernmost point reachable by road (Deadhorse, Alaska). Like Bryson, Caputo’s journey was inspired by his father’s death, but unlike Bryson, Caputo did not travel alone. His companions were his longsuffering wife, Leslie, a pair of English Setters (Sage and Sky), his truck (Fred), and his borrowed Airstream trailer (Ethel), all of whom combined for some hilarious anecdotes.

During his trip, Caputo sought to answer a thought-provoking question: In a country so vast and varied as the United States, where Inupiat Eskimos in Alaska pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, what holds us together? He asked this question of several people along the way, and the answer was always different and enlightening. As our nation seemingly becomes more divided with each passing year, it is always refreshing to retrace Caputo’s steps and remind myself of the glue that unites these United States.

Your turn: Any favorite vacation spots or stories you’d like to share? Any favorite travel books? I’m always looking for a good one.