Since the beginning of summer, all across the nation, from Winter Park to Wichita, families have begun hitting the interstate. Some will travel a mere 100 miles. Others will load their vehicles down with enough provisions ' saltines, DVDs and camping gear ' to shuttle from sea to shining sea. Few will have as much experience doing this as Robert Sullivan.
'I have driven from one side of the United States to the other more than anyone I know who is not a trucker,â?� writes Sullivan at the outset of Cross Country. This sprawling, zigzagging, history-drenched memoir tells the tale of one of his most recent jaunts across the United States. The purpose of the journey was a wedding that Sullivan, his wife and their two kids attended in Oregon; Cross Country details their drive back to New York.
The trip takes six days. Along the way the Sullivan clan makes stops at the kind of landmarks (Lewis and Clark memorials) and freak shows (a golf course on a toxic waste dump) only fathers can foist on their children. Sullivan is impressed by dams, water irrigation systems, windmills. A journalist with a yen for Americana, he also rigorously reminds his kids ' and, by extension, his readers ' they are traveling in the footpaths of others.
Sullivan's drumming of this theme is less annoying than it would seem, partly because one of the happy discoveries of Cross Country is that the feeling of traveling where many have traveled before is as old as America itself. Even Lewis and Clark were not the first to explore the frontier. 'All the way into Montana,â?� Sullivan writes, 'the expedition would camp at spots and believe they were the very first to do so, until Toussaint Charbonneau, the French trader they'd hired to accompany them, would mention that he had already camped there.â?�
Cross Country unfolds in the easy shadow of this wisdom. Like Jack Kerouac before him, Sullivan clearly believes that discovery in the American road sense of the word ' meaning the quasi-patriotic reaching of enlightenment about one's nation via kinetic passage over its breadth ' remains a real possibility, minimarts, Wal-Marts and all.
No one is better equipped to do this than Sullivan. His previous books have revealed him to be something of an urban Thoreau. The Meadowlands meditated on how a vital ecosystem exists in New Jersey's toxic backwash. Rats described the behavior and ' dare I say ' humanity of the vermin who outnumber New York City residents.
So turning the American roadside ' with its blisters of fast-food restaurants, its fungal growth of billboards ' into a thing of beauty is a piece of cake for Sullivan. 'I see the morning light hitting the diesel gas pump back where the truckers are fueling and wish,â?� he writes at a stop near Custer, Mont., 'that I were a landscape painter ' to capture this pure light that causes the entire convenience store and gas station to appear golden, like a promise!â?�
To see the beautiful in the moment requires a keen eye, but to do so in the context of American history requires a kind of negative capability ' the poet John Keats' idea of holding two contrasting ideas in one's mind without reaching for fact or reason. After all, the system of roads and the buildup and support of an auto industry that allowed for the easy transport of peoples and races across the nation has come at great moral and human cost.
As he progresses eastward, Sullivan proves he is up to this task. He detours into America's shameful past regarding the displacement of Indians from their land, the treatment of workers in defunct copper-smelting mines. Traveling through Montana, a state that has some of the most environmentally forward-thinking laws, he recalls the Speculator mine fire of 1917, in which more than 150 miners died.
And yet Sullivan believes that the road still holds the key to America's redemption from the destructive wake of its westward and industrial expansion. Digging into narratives of cross-country trips, he discovers the early proponents of American travel were downright religious about the democratic effects of movement. They are not the hobos one might expect.
They include future manners-stickler Emily Post, who was sent on the road by Collier's, and the writers of marketing brochures (underwritten by rubber companies and the U.S. government) that instructed Americans around World War I to 'See America First.â?� At one point, the Federal Writers' Project employed Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, among others, to sing the virtues of their various regions in road-based tour guides.
So one-time Orlando resident Kerouac was a latecomer to the genre of cross-country narratives when he began writing On the Road. Stylistically, though, he retains the most influence over Sullivan. Every third sentence in this book begins with the word 'and,â?� which comes like a jazz musician's brief intake of breath.
As nostalgic as Sullivan is for his first pell-mell trips across the country with his wife, the road has become something different for him now. 'Car time is a social time,â?� he writes, 'a time when Americans are together.â?�
Upon seeing his daughter squeegee their windshield to perfection, Sullivan is nearly moved to tears. He also recalls his son's plinking out 'This Land Is Your Land,â?� by Woody Guthrie, while sitting outside the remains of the great folk singer's home in Oklahoma. It was nothing much to remark upon ' a mere plaque really ' but the memory of his son's song will last a lifetime.
And that, this book elegantly reminds us, is why we go.