The Longest Road
Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
By Philip Caputo
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2013 Philip Caputo
All rights reserved.
I don't know why my dream fell into such a long slumber. However, after careful investigation, I can identify what woke it up.
At the root was a condition I've suffered from for most of my life. I trace its origins to my childhood in the forties and fifties, when my father, a traveling machinist for the Continental Can Company, maintained and repaired the machines leased to canning factories in central and northern Wisconsin. He would leave our home in suburban Chicago in the late spring, and when school let out for the summer he returned to fetch my mother, my sister, and me to spend the next three months with him.
After the suitcases were stowed in the trunk of the company car, always a no-frills Chevrolet, we would head north on U.S. 45 or U.S. 41, then two-lane blacktops. Some kids would have been sad to leave their friends for the summer, but that moment when we swung onto the highway never failed to fill me with a tingling anticipation. We lived in different places over the years — backwoods cabins without indoor plumbing, lakeside cottages, houses in towns with Indian names like Shawano, or French names like Fond du Lac, or plain-vanilla American names like Green Lake — but the destination never excited me as much as the getting there. I loved to feel the wind slapping me through the open windows, and to inhale the strong smells of manure and silage as the Chevy rolled past corn and pea and beet fields speckled with the straw hats of the migrant workers who brought a touch of the exotic to the midwestern countryside — Mexican braceros, tall Jamaicans. I loved watching farmhouses whiz by, barns decorated with faded advertisements for feed companies and chewing tobacco, and the landscape change from field and pasture to somber pine forests jeweled with lakes.
Long ago, when I was a correspondent in the Middle East, I spent a couple of weeks wandering the Sinai Desert with bedouin tribesmen and an Israeli anthropologist familiar with their culture. He told me that their migrations were not always dictated by the need to find water or better grazing for their herds; sometimes they struck their tents and began to move for no discernible reason. He was forced to conclude that they were animated by an impulse, perhaps lodged in their nomadic genes, to get going, it didn't matter where.
I knew the feeling.
* * *
My father died on March 2, 2010, at age ninety-four. My wife, Leslie Ware, and I were at our house in Patagonia, a small southern Arizona town where we spend part of each winter, when my sister, Pat, phoned with the news from Scottsdale. My father had gone to live there with her and my brother-in-law after my mother's death in 2001. His passing, my sister said, had been quick, painless, even serene, so I felt more grateful than mournful as Leslie and I drove to Scottsdale for the memorial service. It was held at a spanking-new, faux-adobe mortuary that could have been mistaken, from the outside, for an upscale desert spa. Before the service began, I spent a few minutes alone with my father in a back room. He hadn't been dressed yet, and he lay on a steel gurney, a sheet covering him to the neck to hide his nakedness and the embalmer's incisions. His hair had been combed, a pleasant expression put on his face, makeup applied to restore his complexion to its former ruddiness. The cosmetics were so artful and he'd been around so long that I had a hard time believing he was really, truly gone. It became easier when I laid a hand on his forehead, cold as a rock in winter.
I spoke to him nonetheless, on the off chance that he could hear me, telling him that I would always remember him, that I would miss him, that although we'd had some sharp differences I'd never stopped loving him. Then I reminisced about the trip we'd made to Wisconsin a year after my mother's death. We'd gone to Shawano Lake to look for the beach where I'd taken my first steps in 1942. He wanted to see it again. Our only guide was an old photograph showing my mother holding my hand as I toddled uncertainly in the sand. There in the mortuary I reminded him of how amazed we'd been to find that beach, hardly changed in sixty years. As we stood on it, he'd grown nostalgic and talked about his early days on the road, traveling from cannery to cannery with his oak toolbox, its felt-lined drawers crammed with the precision instruments of his trade. "There was nothing like it," he'd said, wistfully. "To be in a car with everything you need, nothing more, and an open road in front of you."
No two people could have been less alike than my father and Jack Kerouac, yet there had been the same spirit in the words he'd spoken as in those Kerouac had written: "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road."
My father's death plunged me into melancholy reflections on old age and the brevity of life, even one as long as his. In a less-than-celebratory mood, I marked my sixty-ninth birthday later that spring, after Leslie and I were back at our home in Connecticut, where we live most of the year. The milestone of seventy was coming up fast. In this era of longer life spans, you can kid yourself at sixty that you have plenty of time left, but seventy has the unmistakable ring of mortality. You quit cigarettes and hard partying years ago, you eat healthy servings of fruits and vegetables, you take your Lipitor faithfully, you exercise, and still you wake up at the hour of the night when it's impossible to entertain illusions, and you can almost see him at the foot of your bed, black wings spread as if about to enfold you.
Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me ... Well, a lot of my life was behind me ... and ahead?
As if struck by an electrical charge, the sleeping cicada born on Barter Island cracked its shell, rose in flight, and began to buzz insistently in my ear. By road from the subtropics to the Arctic.
I went to my laptop, looked up directions from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska. A map of North America flashed on the screen. A blue, diagonal line zigzagged across it, marking the most direct route from the southernmost to the northernmost point — 5,475 miles, according to the driving directions. And that was one way, not to mention that I would have to drive from Connecticut to Key West — 1,486 miles — just to get to the starting point. Then, of course, I would have to return to Connecticut from Deadhorse — 4,780 miles. The total distance — 11,741 miles — gave me sticker shock. Round it up to twelve thousand. Almost halfway around the world! It seemed slightly mad, but then it might do me good. To make such an epic road trip, discovering places I'd never been, rediscovering others, never knowing what I'd find beyond the next curve or hill, would be to recapture the enchantment of youth, a sense of promise and possibility.
The cicada chirped incessantly in my head. I clicked back to the first map. Looking at it brought on a mixture of eagerness and reluctance. The buzzing grew more shrill. If you don't go now, geezer, you never will. I listened to my inner cicada, and the uneasiness subsided. If I'd learned anything, it was that the things you do never cause as much regret as the things you don't.
But I didn't decide to go purely for the adventure. Fourteen years earlier, standing in front of the Harold Kaveolook School, I'd asked, What held the nation together? What made the pluribus unum?
Now I revised that question — would it continue to hold together? — because the America of 2010 wasn't the America of 1996. I'd been living in it the whole time but in some ways did not recognize it.
The worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, millions of homes under water, and millions of people out of work. The wages of the employed stagnant, except for CEOs, investment bankers, and the practitioners of casino capitalism on Wall Street, all of whom were making more money than ever. People were angry. In Texas, crowds at a political event had called on their governor to secede from the union. In Nevada, a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat had suggested that if conservatives like herself didn't get their way they might resort to armed insurrection. Strangely enough, much of this fury wasn't directed at the financial mandarins who had brought the nation to the edge of the abyss; no, it fell on citizens like the aging engineer who, afflicted with Parkinson's disease, was mocked and abused at a Tea Party rally in Ohio because he supported health-care reform. That was the America I didn't recognize — spiteful and cruel.
In geology, a rift is a long, narrow zone where stresses in the earth's crust are causing it to rupture. In North America, one such formation is the Rio Grande Rift, which is pulling apart at the rate of two millimeters a year. You might say, with considerable license, that it's very slowly tearing the continent in half. I couldn't help but see it as a metaphor for the stresses that seemed to be ripping our political and social fabric. But was the country really as fractured as it appeared in the media? As bitter and venomous? It wasn't my intention to take the pulse of the nation; the United States is too big, too complicated a mosaic of races and nationalities and walks of life to have a single pulse or even two or three. But I thought I'd ask people, when possible, the question I'd put to myself: what holds us together?
I planned to go it alone because I'd fallen in love with the image of myself as a solitary knight-errant of the road. My sole companions would be my two English setters, twelve-year-old Sage and her much younger cousin Sky.
Leslie was supportive. Her only objection was that I would make the trip without her. Seeking a little more support, I consulted other family members. Reached by phone in Tampa, elder son Geoff said, "Cool," but had some qualms about my traveling alone.
From his home in Tallahassee, younger son Marc expressed no reservations. "I think you're fucking nuts," he said.
From the start, my heart was set on an Airstream, as American as the prairie schooner, its bright aluminum body and rounded lines reminiscent of early racing airplanes, which is no accident; the first Airstream to roll off the assembly line, in 1936, was called the Clipper and was modeled on a design created by Hawley Bowlus, designer of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.
An Airstream is wanderlust made visible and tangible. It sings with Walt Whitman, "Allons! ... come travel with me" ... sings of lonesome highways stretching on and on.
I cannot count the hours spent surfing print and online classifieds for an Airstream I could afford. No luck. Eventually I e-mailed Airstream's CEO, Bob Wheeler, at the company's factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, pitching my travel plans — and myself. I told him I would write about the journey, and touted the publicity value if the company leased me a trailer or sold me one at a discount. Ignorance and egotism led me to presume that this was an offer he would not refuse. I didn't know then that the first vehicle occupied by the Apollo 11 astronauts upon their return from the moon had been a modified Airstream; nor that carpeted, wood-paneled Airstreams furnished with leather chairs, TVs, and DVD players are installed in air force cargo planes that fly the president and other American officials the world over.
Thus Wheeler and his marketing people considered my offer one they could refuse, and they did.
By holiday season, I was still trailerless and growing anxious; I hoped to depart from Key West sometime between late May and early June, leaving time to reach the Arctic before the snow fell and road travel there became a matter for the experts on the TV show Ice Road Truckers. I'd begun to consider alternatives to an Airstream when a friend introduced me to Rich Luhr, who lives in Tucson.
In his late forties, dark-haired and slender, Luhr is the founder and publisher of Airstream Life, a magazine dedicated to respectable vagrancy, a lifestyle summed up in the gerund Airstreaming. He's lost count of how many times he and his family have crisscrossed the country in their thirty-foot trailer.
I should point out that Airstreamers form a subculture almost cultic in its attachment to the trailers; in its exclusivity (there are Airstream parks that will not permit non-Airstreams past their gates); in its rituals and in its specialized lingo, which can be as opaque to an outsider as nautical jargon to a landlubber. Airstreamers disdain recreational vehicles of all other makes and models. Disdain chills into contempt when it comes to bus-size, boxy RVs with garish exteriors and interiors so loaded with luxuries they are for all practical purposes condominiums on wheels. As a leader in the cult, Luhr refused to listen to any talk about substitutes. He was going to help me find an Airstream.
We fell into a routine: I would scan the classifieds, then e-mail him with candidates. Very few were acceptable. This one was too big; that one overloaded with aftermarket gewgaws; this other one had the following defects. Luhr was a discriminating judge of trailer flesh. Whenever he gave one a rare thumbs-up, its price moved me to give it a thumbs-down. I began to despair of finding a Goldilocks Airstream — and found myself encouraging my own discouragement.
A long journey is more attractive when imagined than in reality; the closer I came to the start date I'd set, the more I felt a coldness in my feet, while an argument went on in my head, in stereo.
It's too far, said a voice in the right speaker, it will take too long [three to four months, I'd figured] and cost too much. Besides, you're too old.
It announced a headline: AGING WRITER'S REMAINS FOUND IN MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.
Buck up! replied the left speaker. Every year you drive from Connecticut to Arizona and back without a problem. And you're not circling the drain yet.
* * *
In early March, Luhr e-mailed with good news. He'd met a woman, Erica Sherwood, who restored and sold antique Airstreams from her home in Breckenridge, Texas. A burnished 1967 Caravel on her Web site caught my eye. At nineteen feet, it was ideal for a guy and two dogs. But then there was the asking price: $24,500. Private owners almost never lease their Airstreams, but I phoned Sherwood asking if she would and was surprised when she agreed. We settled on another vehicle in her inventory: a renovated 1962 Globetrotter, also nineteen feet, but with higher clearance that would be better on rough roads.
Leslie flew home to Connecticut while I remained in Arizona, where I bought a 2007 Toyota Tundra, a pickup capable of hauling a boxcar, and then a hardtop shell for the truck's bed to provide a home for the dogs. After Sherwood's lawyer drew up a lease agreement, she drove eight hundred miles to Tucson and delivered the Globetrotter to Luhr's house. I met her and the trailer there at the end of March.
Sherwood is a presence, a six-foot, blue-eyed blonde of thirty-seven who'd played guard for the women's basketball teams at Baylor and Abilene Christian universities. As for the trailer, a roof-mounted air conditioner slightly spoiled its aerodynamic lines, but it was otherwise a compact beauty, so polished that I could have shaved in it without missing a spot. Inside, it was equipped with a minifridge that ran on propane or electric power; a galley with a sink, counter, and three-burner propane stove; a dinette in front that broke down into a bed; a sofa in back that pulled out into another bed; a stainless steel shower stall-cum-toilet, and a small, chip-burning stove for heat, all compressed into about 150 square feet. Luhr and Sherwood took me to a Tucson Walmart and a camping supply store for essential equipment: tools, a 30-amp power cord, a water hose, a flexible sewer hose, stabilizer jacks, a hydraulic jack, work gloves, butane lighters, and sundry other articles. Sherwood had told me that her Web site's domain name, Nomadica, was intended to encapsulate a footloose, minimalist mode of travel. But after the buying spree I began to wonder just how minimalist it was going to be.
I was introduced to the routines, procedures, and terminology of trailer life: hitching up, hooking up, leveling and stabilizing, dry- camping (done in wilderness areas lacking sewer, water, and electricity hookups).
Luhr presented a manual he'd written — The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming — and opened it to the chapter on checklists. There were two daily departure checklists, one for the outside, one for the inside; ditto for arrival. Total items to be checked: thirty-five. I was starting to feel as if I were in my first day of flight school.
More terminology followed. GVWR, for Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, meaning how much the trailer weighs (the Globetrotter was 3,100 pounds); Net Carrying Capacity, meaning how much weight could be put into the trailer; GAWR, for Gross Axle Weight Rating, meaning how much weight the tow vehicle's front and rear axles could take. The trailer's tongue weight — the weight it exerted on the tow vehicle's axles — could not exceed either axle's maximum rating. Happily, Luhr reported after a look at the specs, the Globetrotter's tongue weight was a scant 340 pounds, while the Tundra's GAWR was 4,000 pounds (front) and 4,150 (rear).
Nevertheless, I nearly wept as the Whitmanesque romance of the open road was crushed under, well, the weight of all this technical information. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Longest Road by Philip Caputo. Copyright © 2013 Philip Caputo. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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