On the road in America - and writing about it
Writers Philip Caputo and William Least Heat-Moon talk about traveling ithrough North America, and the differences between being a tourist and a traveler.
The road book has a long and glorious history in the annals of literature, starting perhaps with “The Odyssey” (assuming you’re willing to consider the sea as a road). One of the newest entrants in the genre is “The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean” by Philip Caputo (Holt). Caputo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “A Rumor of War,” a memoir of the Vietnam War. His new book chronicles his trip in an Airstream trailer from one corner of North America to the other.
Recently, Caputo traveled to Missouri to compare notes with one of the most acclaimed travel writers of our time, William Least Heat-Moon, the author of “Blue Highways” and “PrairyErth (A Deep Map).” His latest book is “Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories From the Road” (Little, Brown), a collection of short essays plucked from 30-plus years of travel. They had a wide-ranging conversation, condensed and edited here, covering their many years of travel.
THE ROAD BOOK
Philip Caputo: The road book is a peculiarly American genre. I don’t know of any Italian road books or British road books or French road books or Spanish road books. Maybe “Don Quixote” would qualify as a Spanish road book. Why do you think that is?
William Least Heat-Moon: My theory is it comes from the historic fact we are all from the other side of the planet. I know there are American Indian tribes that deny that, but I think archaeology and anthropology show that all of the so-called Native American tribes did indeed come from the Eastern Hemisphere. We’re all the descendants of travelers. And with the exception of people of African descent, virtually all of our ancestors came here wanting to find better territory. I think it’s genetic memory functioning — when life gets this way or that way, and we’re not really happy with it, what do we do? Put a kit bag over one shoulder and head out for the road because that’s where solutions might lie. Somewhere out there is an answer to why a life is as it is.
Caputo: One of the things that’s impressed me about traveling in this country — and I’ve done a lot of world traveling, as you have, too — is not only the size of the country but the variety of the landscape, which is like nothing I have ever seen anywhere else. I mean, you can be in Arizona or New Mexico and think you’re in North Africa, and not terribly far away it might look like the Swiss Alps, and someplace else — say, the Dakotas — looks like Ukraine.
Heat-Moon: American topography is so incredibly diverse. If you’re traveling by auto, the windshield becomes a kind of movie. And we’re going to go out on the road, and we’re going to meet people who don’t think the way we do. And listening to someone who doesn’t think the way we do, we may learn something that could be useful, as well as something downright interesting.
Caputo: Yeah, I think one of the things I got out of this particular journey was running into people who will change your perspective, who will change the way you looked at things. And sometimes I think not just for the moment either, but permanently. And I think you’re right, that the country is big enough and varied enough, not only in its geographical landscape but its social landscape, that if I do travel to northwest Washington from southeast Georgia, or vice versa, I’m not going to run into somebody who thinks exactly the way I do and sees the world the same as I do.
TOURIST VS. TRAVELER
Caputo: What do you think the difference is between a tourist and a traveler?
Heat-Moon: I think the higher category is the traveler, in that the traveler makes a deeper penetration into the landscape and into people’s lives. The traveler probably is moving a bit slower, and many times on foot rather than with wheels. Wheels can turn a traveler into a tourist very quickly.
But that said, get in your car and drive diagonally across the Great Plains as you did in “The Longest Road.” I think it’s penetration of the land, and that begins by going more slowly, by listening, and by getting out from behind the windshield and looking and doing.
Caputo: I think a tourist is usually someone who is on a time budget. A tourist is out to see sights, usually which have been enumerated for him in a guidebook. I think there’s a deeper degree of curiosity in a traveler.
Heat-Moon: Destinations have a key element of defining travelers and tourists, so that tourists to — let’s pick Arizona — those tourists are likely to head for the Grand Canyon, whereas a traveler in Arizona might light out for Wilcox. Why somebody would want to visit Wilcox, I don’t know, other than to see what’s there. Ask questions: Who was Wilcox? What kind of place is it? A tidy little place, by the way.
Caputo: What do you learn on these secondary roads, these back roads — and all that you don’t learn and can’t learn on major highways, especially interstates or four-lane superhighways?
Heat-Moon: The first one that pops into my mind is, “Two-lane America is the real America.” That’s not true — the interstates are as real as anything else and can, at moments, seem more real than a two-lane. So that’s not the answer. It’s true, though, that a two-lane experience will allow travelers to slow down more. To stop along an interstate in most places is illegal. Rarely so along a two-lane highway, so that greater slowness we were speaking of earlier — one of the differences between travelers and tourists — makes it easier to enter a place, to enter a life along two-lane America.
In two-lane America, there’s often an approachableness in the people who live there, people not yet terrified of a stranger popping into town. Here comes a stranger who hasn’t heard the story about how he or she killed a coyote. Aha, fresh meat, fresh ears. And so they’re ready to talk. On an interstate I’ve never found that — first of all the places where those conversations happen generally aren’t there. You need the laundromat, a quiet 5:30 tavern, a street corner where you might meet somebody. I think of the encounters in “Blue Highways” — several happened when I would stand on a street corner in a village and just wait until someone came up and said, “Who the devil are you?” On interstates that just doesn’t happen — unless it’s the highway patrol.
RECORDING THE ROAD
Heat-Moon: By keeping a record you deepen the travel, you become more aware of what’s happening as you record it in the evening or the next morning, whatever it happens to be. And it’s today so easy to keep various kinds of records. A digital world has really opened up possibilities.
One thing that comes immediately to mind, an easy way and probably an enjoyable one, for so many people would be to keep a blog as one travels. It forces the travelers to evaluate and interpret what’s going on as they record details of it for later use, maybe even for posterity. But what are your thoughts about turning travelers — and I didn’t say tourists — for turning travelers into various kinds of record keepers, for want of a better word?
Caputo: First of all it’s an ancient tradition — or at least an old tradition, if not ancient — when one thinks of all of those travel diaries that were kept by people who trekked the Oregon Trail, for example, that have proved to be grand historical documents. As you said, keeping a record of your travels deepens the experience because you’ve got to think about it afterward, while you’re recording it, whether it’s on a blog, or as I did — I kept a handwritten journal, mainly because I’m something of a Luddite.
Heat-Moon: As am I, in that regard.
Caputo: But my wife did a blog, which in fact for writing a book was a good record to check back on as well. Because she would notice things that I might have missed, or sometimes she would have experiences on her own. And yes, it deepens the experiences because you have to think about what you saw or whom you met. But also the next day you will find that your alertness is higher because you are looking at things with a view to maintaining them, to recording them.
It’s very easy on the road, as we all know, that you just go into white-line hypnosis, and the next thing you know you arrive somewhere and you don’t even know how you got there.
One method I found that was really good is I would keep a field notebook. And I actually got this from Lewis and Clark; that’s what they did. They would keep field notes as they travel along and at the end of each day — I mean these guys were remarkable, considering that they were writing with inkwells and quill pens in all kinds of weather — they would record things in the formal journal. And that’s what I did.