The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
- Philip Caputo
- Henry Holt and Company
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Camila Domonoske
- July 25, 2013
The author’s 8,000-mile journey takes him to places that don’t appear on the typical itinerary for summer travel plans.
An aging writer’s restless nature flares up, and he decides to set off on a long road trip “in search of America.” Canine companionship is essential. After much time and energy spent on finding the perfect camper, our slightly curmudgeonly author-narrator sets off to talk to people across America and find out just what makes the country tick.
Sound familiar? It’s not Travels With Charley, though it owes a debt to John Steinbeck’s classic. It’s Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road, and thankfully, it’s more than just a 21st-century update of one of America’s great road-trip stories. Some differences are negligible: two English setters, not a poodle; an Airstream, not a custom camper; the presence of a wife, instead of a man driving solo.
But the biggest difference is more fundamental, at least for a travelogue like this: Caputo’s route. In 1996, while standing on a barren island north of Alaska, Caputo saw a school perched above the permafrost. He realized that the Inupiat kids in Alaska and the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West all pledged allegiance to the same flag. And, he thought, he could get in a car and drive from one edge of this vast country to the other — if not all the way to Barter Island, then at least to Deadhorse, the dead end of the Alaskan highway.
Fourteen years later, when his sense of mortality is growing oppressive, the 70-year-old Caputo sets off on that journey. The result is a road story with an atypical emphasis on destination— Caputo, heading from the tip of Florida to the top of Alaska, can plausibly write of taking “detours,” a concept foreign to the meanderings of Steinbeck or Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson.
More interesting, the trail he chooses takes him straight through middle America. Steinbeck traced the edges of the country, and Kerouac crossed it back and forth en route to major cities, but Caputo’s trail takes him through microscopic towns, dying regions and general non-destinations. Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D. Atchison, Kan. In one of the book’s little jokes, both Two Egg, Fla., and Chicken, Alaska.
It’s an illogical trip, with little to see on either end (no offense, Key West) and a whole lot of empty land in the middle. And it takes Caputo — an Illinois-born liberal now living in Connecticut — to a part of America most coastal dwellers think of as a homogenous sea of red. You don’t need a color overlay of the 2012 election results to see the trend, but in case you missed it, Caputo provides nearly constant political commentary, rarely missing an opportunity to point out differences between his own political views and those he encounters. At times, Caputo seems to describe rural conservatives as though they’re denizens of a foreign country. Still, to his credit, at least he warmly engages with people in a part of America too often seen, by residents of places like Connecticut, as “flyover country.”
As he follows the fine tradition of road-trip writers “seeking America,” Caputo brings a new level of formality to the quest. He’s armed with a precise, consistently worded question: What’s the glue that holds this sometimes-fragmented country together? It’s an unnecessary and artificial crutch for the story; Caputo’s fear of mortality is what really drives his travels, and that’s interesting enough. Although he finds a few interesting answers, for the most part the characters he meets (a crucial part of any road tale) would be fascinating enough without his query. Let the art-major Alaskan pie bakers speak for themselves, I wanted to groan, without conducting this silly poll, and then let’s get back to the flat tires and the missed turns and the star-spangled skies of the prairie. I may have a bias for travelogue over meta-patriotic survey, but I suspect that even readers fond of political sociology would agree that Caputo could have used a little more ‘glue’ himself, to link his abstract question to his personal road adventure.
Overall, Caputo is no Steinbeck; his book lacks the gripping sense of drive and restless energy that pervades the best road stories. He also has a tendency to tie a neat narrative bow about things better left standing on their own. After we meet a down-on-their-luck couple who found meaning in ministry, we really, truly get the point, without needing to be advised that “in trying to save others, they saved themselves.” And the book ends on a note that’s positively trite.
But there’s still much to recommend in this road story. It’s uncommonly aware of the weight of history, and gives admirable attention to the Native-American communities and lives so often erased from the American story. Caputo has a good eye for detail and a humane ear for other people’s stories. His wife is charming, a welcome female addition to an often hyper-masculine genre, and helps to poke holes into some of Caputo’s pretensions — like his insistence that he’s a “traveler,” not, by any means, a “tourist.”
In a season that calls out for road trips both real and imaginary, Caputo’s long haul across the country is a worthy addition to your vicarious travel plans. If you’ve never eaten at a town’s only diner or seen with clear eyes the collapse of America’s small farms, a glimpse of Middle America will do you good — and even if you have rural roots, it’s worth taking a trip to the kinds of empty wildernesses that don’t appear on the average summer travel itinerary. It might not be the voyage of a lifetime, but when there’s someone else battling the bugs, heat and rocky roads — and paying the gas tab! — it’s worth riding shotgun on this journey of 8,000 miles.
Camila Domonoske, who works for NPR, hails from the Shenandoah Valley and is a graduate of Davidson College. When she’s not reading, she’s baking or biking.