He had me at the itinerary.
Even though Philip Caputo sets up a far-reaching, serious justification for his new book, "The Longest Road," you can't help but get as excited as he seems to be by the basic premise.
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What would it be like to leisurely drive from the southernmost point in the United States (Key West, Fla.) to as far north as the pavement runs (Deadhorse, Alaska)?
We've seen this concept before, where a famous writer takes off on a gimmicky route and reports back on what he finds along the way. John Steinbeck famously did it with "Travels with Charley." Ian Frazier penned a classic after traipsing around the Great Plains. Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" offered the heady version.
For Caputo, who devised the novel approach of seeing the USA diagonally from south to north, the prods were many. He confesses to a wandering spirit. As he approached 70, he wanted one less regret. And, he intended to pose — and perhaps find an answer to — the question about what holds America together. How does a land stretching the 6,000 miles he proposed to travel — shaped by divergent cultures, climates and landscapes — adhere? The question for the author was pertinent, considering the great fissures in American politics and economic life he saw emerge over the last decade.
Caputo, who grew up in Westchester and attended Fenwick High School and Loyola University Chicago, boasts the literary bona fides to guarantee an intriguing ride. He shared a Pulitzer Prize at the Chicago Tribune, where he was also a foreign correspondent. He's best known for his classic memoir, "A Rumor of War" (1977), which recounted his experience as a young officer in Vietnam. Several gripping novels set in rugged places followed.
To make things a little more interesting, Caputo decides to haul a classic 1962 Airstream trailer, one of those shiny, aluminum humps, behind his pickup. He'll share that tiny home with his wife, Leslie, a magazine editor. Two English setters fill out the caravan, which pledges to stay out of hotels and off the interstates.
Right from the start, Caputo discovers the seams in America may be stronger than he thought. In Key West, he runs into a couple from West Virginia who have come south to minister to the city's homeless and addicts.
Up in Tallahassee, the Florida speaker of the house, Republican Dean Cannon, provides a quick, cogent and disarming answer to Caputo's big question: "The nation is held together for structural, cultural and historical reasons. We have a federal, not a national,government. It's the difference between steel and Kevlar. The structure is flexible enough to support differences in diverse peoples and diverse states, but strong enough to hold things together."
Further on the road, he and his wife volunteer to help the then-recent tornado victims in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Surrounded by selfless folks from around the country, they experience America at its best. And that's the way it goes throughout the journey. People all over America are a lot less worried about what holds the country together than Caputo is. They simply feel, as one Missourian puts it: "that we have more in common than not. ... I'm not sure it's true, but the important thing is that we believe it is."
To his credit, Caputo doesn't belabor the issue and instead lets the trip unfold along the blue highways. It's fun to tag along as an expert reporter recounts the sights, offers little history lessons and yanks stories from strangers at every stop.
The odyssey really takes flight when the pair cross the Mississippi and try (very loosely) to follow Lewis and Clark's trail. They make the requisite stops in South Dakota: the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (site of the Wounded Knee massacre), the Badlands and the Black Hills. And the lure of the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana is too great to ignore.
However, Caputo is at his best in describing the little places that normally don't get attention. He visits a hippie commune in Tennessee and charts its four decades of evolution. His stop in Lebanon, Kan., near the geographic center of the "Lower 48," offers a vision of how once thriving cities now try to market "historic" downtowns.
In Grand Island, Neb., he encounters a community of Somali and Sudanese immigrants, whose refugee status worked in their favor when the Swift meat-packing plant sought legal foreign workers. At the farthest remove, the oil workers of Deadhorse live in an almost sci-fi world of fog, metal, burnt-off gases and cold. The end of the road was the "strangest and ugliest town in the country."
Through it all, including constant problems with the Airstream's balky drainage system, Caputo remains an amiable guide.
"The Longest Road" is good evidence that he's delightful company. But maybe the best evidence is that, despite traveling 8,314 miles over 79 days and living in a 19-foot trailer, he and his wife had only two spats.
John Barron is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun Times. He lives in Oak Park.
"The Longest Road"
By Philip Caputo, Henry Holt, 320 pages, $28
Philip Caputo will appear at a Printers Row event in Tribune Tower on July 24. For tickets or more information, visit printersrowjournal.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun