Go Northwest, Old Man…
Author: Philip Caputo
Concision is an under appreciated art form. Authors may have much to say, but whittling content down to a digestible size while retaining the essential morsels is not easy. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. Travel writing may be a particularly challenging example, although in the hands of a master it can look easy. Somehow, in The Longest Road, author and journalist Philip Caputo pares the story of his ambitious 16,000 mile road trip down to a manageable and entertaining size, easily held in one hand.
In 2011, getting ready to turn seventy, Caputo – most famous for his Vietnam war memoir, A Rumor of War – resurrects an old idea and decides to drive from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, hoping to learn a thing or two about what holds this vast country together along the way.
Buying a 2007 Toyota Tundra (christened “Fred”) and hunting down a vintage Airstream Globetrotter (“Ethel”), Caputo gathers together his maps and guidebooks and heads to Florida, along with his traveling companions – wife (“Leslie”) and two English setters (“Sage” and “Sky”). They commence their journey on May 19 from Key West, heading north on the Overseas Highway. Eschewing the Interstate, they pass through Miami, cross the Everglades, trek up the gulf coast and continue on in a generally northwesterly direction, toward “The Last Frontier”, also known as Alaska. Along the way they assist tornado victims in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; visit Elvis’ birth place in Tupelo, Mississippi; pursue the perfect bison photo on the Great Plains; hang with some Harley dudes near Sturgis, South Dakota; search for bikini baristas in Seattle; and brave the unforgiving wilderness of Alaska’s Dalton Highway – to name just a few of the many highlights.
While the travelers encounter many challenges – geological, mechanical, meteorological and zoological – the best part of the book is the many people they meet along the way. Like any good journalist, Caputo is able to talk to anyone, making friends with apparent ease. Chagrined by what appears to be an increasingly bitter rift within the American populace, he asks everyone he meets what it is that unites this incredibly diverse nation. Not surprisingly, he gets a lot of different answers.
Caputo is a fine storyteller, including much self-deprecating humor along the way. Some of the best moments involve the inevitable marital squabbles that erupt over the months of uninterrupted together time. Despite thousands of miles of endless asphalt, he manages to keep the story interesting by sprinkling many historical, political and personal tidbits in between the highway numbers and camper drain backups. Whether it’s the travails of Lewis and Clark, the economic decline of small town America or recent developments in the fossil fuel industry, his commentary is thoughtful and consistently engaging.
Much more than a simple recap of one family’s summer vacation, The Longest Road is genuine, first-hand exploration of modern America. Well-crafted by a talented author with more than a few decades on his odometer, I can recommend it for anyone who enjoys quality travel writing or who wants to learn more about the curious cultural hodgepodge that is the United States of America.
— D. Driftless
Key West photo by Stefan Kokemüller/Dalton Highway photo by Micah Bochart