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“All come to look for America”

Four classics from authors who tried to find meaning in their traveling

“All come to look for America”

(Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan)

It’s hard for Americans to stay home. We are all descended from people who traveled thousands of miles to get here, freely or in chains. We have 205,000 miles of U.S. highways and interstates. A lot of us can recall our own versions of what Simon and Garfunkel first sang in 1968: “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw. I’ve gone to look for America.”

This is the time of year when a lot of us would like to be on the road, again. But, given the coronavirus, it might not be time, yet. If we can’t be out and about, is the next best thing reading about those who were?

In social isolation recently I read four classic American road books: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (1962), William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America (1983), and Larry McMurtry’s Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (2000). They’re all interesting. All four authors in different ways took to heart Simon’s lyrics: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. … All come to look for America.” 

ON THE ROAD is on “great books of the 20th century” lists published by Time, Modern Library, and many others. Its plot is simple: Sal and Dean (Kerouac and his buddy Neal Cassady) go back and forth across the United States on whims, abandoning girlfriends and scrounging for food, drugs, and beer. In a typical scene, Sal in San Francisco walks 4 miles and picks up 10 cigarette butts so he can pour the tobacco into his pipe.

Periodically, the 20-somethings yearn for more. They steal food in Texas and drive by “comfortable little homes with chimneys smoking. … I wished we could go in for buttermilk and beans in front of the fireplace.” Sal has occasional moments of self-realization: “I was beginning to cross and recross towns in America as though I were a traveling salesman [with] rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying, … running from one falling star to another till I drop.”

But then Kerouac suggests life offers only two choices: Living on the road or working “an all-night shift at the boiler factory.” Dean tries to justify his choice: “You spend a whole life of noninterference with the wishes of others … you cut along and make it your own way.” But one woman rightly lectures him: “You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. … It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.”

Kerouac influenced an entire generation to hitchhike and sleep around. (In my craziest pre-Christian year, 1972, I hitchhiked up and down the West Coast as a Communist Party member, crashing in comrades’ apartments and eating bags of chocolate chip cookies for dinner.) Kerouac’s run-on-sentence “spontaneous prose” style became popular for a time, even though Truman Capote rightly said, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

But in reading this book after 50 years, I’m struck by the children left behind. Dean “had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed.” We learn about two addicts: “Their food bill was the lowest in the country; they hardly ever ate; nor did the children—they didn’t seem to care.” Sure. “Johnny, seven years old, dark-eyed and sweet,” appears in a tent where the adults get drunk and two of them decide to have sex. One asks, “What about Johnny?” The other says, “He don’t mind. He’s asleep.” But Johnny wasn’t.

Sal’s aunt, who enables his travel, reminds him of the children: “Those poor little things grow up helpless. You’ve got to offer them a chance to live.” Sal honestly says, “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” The same could be said of On the Road generally, but The New York Times called Kerouac the “avatar” of the 1950s beat generation and his novel “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made” by those nihilistic rebels.

Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassady died in 1968 after overdosing on barbiturates. Cassady left this advice to posterity: “My kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.” Kerouac’s last paragraph in On the Road includes this: “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey, and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it … and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Kerouac, not grasping God’s reality and changing his life, died in 1969 at age 47 from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.

FIVE YEARS AFTER On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America became a No. 1 bestseller. Its style is very different—short sentences, crisp writing—and the narrator is mature: Steinbeck, already famous, would soon win the Nobel Prize in literature. But some of Steinbeck’s criticism of America, oddly enough, parallels Kerouac’s.

Steinbeck, at age 58, said he was traveling because “I had not felt the country for twenty-five years … heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water.” He started in New York where Kerouac ended and headed out in a pickup truck with a camper top and his 10-year-old French poodle, Charley, who often seems more mellow than his master. Steinbeck, anticipating the movie The Graduate (1967), quickly bemoans a Maine motel where “everything was done in plastic—the floors, the curtain, table tops of stainless burnless plastic, lamp shades of plastic.”

Steinbeck yearns for authenticity and adventure. He hates seeing “two water tumblers … sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’” He hates seeing across a toilet seat “a strip of paper with the message ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” He describes one restaurant “with simulated leather stools. … Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic.” Another “was all plastic too—the table linen, the butter dish. The sugar and crackers were wrapped in cellophane.” (Why so much whining?)

Steinbeck was often disappointed to see that “the new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another. … This, as I found, is as true in Texas as in Maine.” He complains about food that is “clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness.” He complains to Charley about “racks of paperbacks with some great and good titles but overwhelmingly outnumbered by the volumes of sex, sadism, and homicide. … If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation?”

But as Steinbeck drives on, he remembers “how rich and beautiful is the countryside—the deep topsoil, the wealth of great trees.” He sees “a noble land of good fields and magnificent trees. … The land dripped with richness, the fat cows and pigs gleaming against green.” He loves two magnificent parts of America that also overwhelmed me when I saw them a decade later: Montana, “rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.” And the redwoods of Northern California: “The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. … The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”

Steinbeck doesn’t much like what man hath built. In Seattle, for example, “traffic rushed with murderous intensity … high wire fences and mile-long factories stretched, and the yellow smoke of progress hung over them. … Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth.” Steinbeck’s trip finally takes him through the South during the civil rights era, where he portrays racial ugliness in New Orleans. He writes that he knows others there, “thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy.” But we don’t see them. Steinbeck shows us “blowzy women” displaying “the demented cruelty of egocentric children.”

WHEN WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON in 1978 traveled blue highways, those secondary roads that old Rand McNally road atlases often showed as blue lines, he was halfway between Kerouac and Steinbeck in both age and attainment. Heat-Moon had a Ph.D. in English and a marriage, but he had just lost his job and separated from his wife. Early in Blue Highways: A Journey Into America he stops for directions, and a would-be helper asks, “Where’d you lose the right road?” Heat-Moon responds, “I don’t know. Somewhere around 1965.”

Like Steinbeck, Heat-Moon complains about the stuff of America: “the backsides of suburbs and miles of carpet sample, unclaimed freight, factory outlet, and furniture warehouse stores. … Things raced past like the jumpy images of a nickelodeon: abandoned and stripped cars on the shoulders, two hitchhiking females that nobody could stop to pick up, a billboard EAT SAUSAGE AND BE HAPPY.” Approaching New York City, he sees “the World Trade Center like stumps in the yellow velvet sky.”

But unlike Kerouac, who suggests life is meaningless, and Steinbeck, who claims American life has lost its meaning, Blue Highways is a search for meaning. One depressive asks, “When you’re driving, do you ever feel like swinging over in front of a semi that’s really moving?” Heat-Moon replies, “I know the urge.” How to fight it? He admires those who make something: a man rebuilding a cabin, another building a boat. Heat-Moon appreciates a Kentucky church sign announcing an Easter sermon: “‘Welcome All God’s Children: Thieves, Liars, Gossips, Bigots, Adulterers, Children.’ I felt welcome.” But he doesn’t go in.

Heat-Moon is a good observer of external geography. On one memorable stretch he drives through “the Texas some people see as barren waste. … They say ‘There’s nothing out there.’” Heat-Moon proves them wrong by stopping on a mesa 240 miles west of Austin and making a list of 30 nothings: mockingbird, mourning dove, bumblebee, ants, spiders, opossum skull, jackrabbit, deer scat, coyote tracks, snake, cactus, mesquite, and so on. He rightly declares that no place “is boring of itself. Boredom lies only with the traveler’s limited perception and his failure to explore deeply enough.”

That observation becomes poignant after the most extended conversation of the book, one he has with a hitchhiking Seventh-day Adventist evangelist, Arthur Bakke. For nine pages Heat-Moon has fun condescending—“Oh, god, not this”—to Bakke who repeatedly recites Bible verses, talks about “God’s strategy,” and asks questions: “How’s your faith today? Do you want a free Bible course?” But Heat-Moon, despite saying, “I liked Arthur. I liked him very much,” wants to be alone as he drives across the Great Plains, where amid loneliness he sees himself realistically: “a man nearly desperate because his significance had come to lie within his own narrow ambit.”

Cemeteries make a more frequent appearance toward the end of Blue Highways. Heat-Moon reads the gravestones at a burial ground in Holliston, Mass., and notes the poem that on many of them warns passersby: “As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare for Death & follow me.” He puts a wax rubbing of the gravestone on the wall of his camper, so “the shining waxen eyes of the old stone face” observe him as he sleeps and rises. On the last page he walks in Indiana near a burial ground of unmarked graves and realizes he’s learned on his miles of wandering what he didn’t know he wanted to know.

And what’s that? Blue Highways ends with a gas station attendant asking Heat-Moon, “Where you coming from?” He responds, “Where I’ve been.” The attendant asks, “Where else?” In other words, external travels aren’t enough. If we think our significance has come to lie within our own “narrow ambit,” we become desperate.

LARRY MCMURTY’S Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways differs from the other three in that it’s about big roads, not blue ones or his own blues. When he travels, McMurtry says, “I’m not attempting to take the national pulse. … I doubt that I will be having folksy conversations with people I meet. … Today, in fact, I drove 770 miles … speaking only about twenty words: a thank-you at a Quik Stop south of Duluth … a lunch order in Missouri, and a request for a room once I got to Wichita.”

McMurtry the driver, in short, seems a lot like taciturn Woodrow Call the cattle driver in the great novel and television miniseries, Lonesome Dove. Capt. Call liked to move, and a good day for McMurtry was when “I plunge 800 miles down a highway in a single day … not even stopping for museums. Particularly not stopping for museums, the acquisition of a broadened cultural awareness not being the point of these trips.” 

What was the point? McMurtry, who turned 84 on June 3, was not only a producer of books but a buyer and seller. For years he ran a big bookstore and spent most days “unboxing, pricing, sorting. … Working with books always relaxes me, but the books bring people, and … there comes a point at which I want to be away, drive somewhere, see some sky.”

Roads has a lot of accurate seeing. I’ve enjoyed some of McMurtry’s experiences and reactions. In Minnesota, “a skim-milk light began to spread itself over the forests and the fields.” In Arizona “when the first sunlight spills over the mountains it brings an hour of quiet, cool clarity.” In Montana “the rivers, the valleys, the mountains, and the big sky manage, as nowhere else, to combine the grand vista with the intimate view.”

McMurtry isn’t against buildings, even plastic. By 2000 he had stayed in “about 200” Holiday Inns. He notes approvingly that much of central Michigan is “prosperous farming country, judging from the size of the houses.” But he loves Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for “the beauty of the waters, which split the immense forests and open the world to the sky again.” He likes Louisiana’s sounds of silence when he crosses “the great Atchafalaya swamp—a land of mystery … a silent world—the snakes and alligators and other water creatures that inhabit it make little noise.” He likes “heading south, toward warmth, or west, toward bigger skies and stronger light.”

McMurtry has much to say about good and bad interstate highways. Regarding Interstate 35, for example, he praises “the wonderful stretch of rangeland south of Emporia, Kansas, on the 35,” but rightly condemns “the long stretch from Dallas to San Antonio—an old, crumbling interstate that passes through endlessly repetitive stretches of ugly urban sprawl.”

WHAT TO MAKE of these four road books? Give Kerouac credit for comprehending the meaninglessness of life without God. His last sentence of On the Road depicts well the assumptions of an atheistic worldview: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”

Give Steinbeck credit for being impressed with a Biblical presentation, although it did not change his life: In Travels With Charley he describes visiting a “John Knox church” and finding prayers “to the point, directing the attention of the Almighty to certain weaknesses and undivine tendencies I know to be mine and could only suppose were shared by others.” The pastor was not one of “our psychiatric priesthood [saying] our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents.”

William Least Heat-Moon offers at various times a base of Native American spiritualism with a sprinkling of Buddhism and some undertones of Christian mysticism. Halfway through his account he quotes John le Carré’s comment about the journey of death: “Nothing ever bridged the gulf between the man who went and the man who stayed behind.” 

Larry McMurtry went repeatedly on long trips but often had no destination in mind. As a college undergraduate he wrote a paper noting his “antagonism to organized religion. … I am agnostic.” I haven't found any indication that he outgrew that bias. Driving America’s great highways became his opiate. It’s a score of years since he wrote Roads. I pray that he’s learned the score.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.