Roughing It


“See Europe if you will, but see America first,” begs the slogan of a 1906 Salt Lake City conference on national tourism. Quickly parse the syntax of this motto, and discover that the emphasis is not merely on exploring the rugged American frontier prior to strolling the Champs-Elysées, but rather on literally seeing America first, before anyone else, period. (Obviously an inaccurate presupposition, but a seductive myth.) The pioneer spirit extends through Kerouac and Easy Rider to the present day, except that we now have less uncontaminated earth to explore, conquer, and, naturally, write about. (For the ultimate satiric moratorium on interstate enlightenment, see Albert Brooks’s Lost in America.) But instead of packing up and moving on, American travel writers have embraced the following syllogism: Boredom breeds curiosity, curiosity breeds concentration, concentration breeds minutiae, minutiae breeds history.

Redolent of said decline, the family road trip chronicled in Robert Sullivan’s
Cross Country
remains, over the course of nearly 400 pages, almost comically uneventful. Even the author’s reminiscence of “The Worst Cross-Country Trip Ever” (undertaken a few years prior) just sounds like a peripatetic variant on a shrug-worthy bad day. Most of Sullivan’s in-vehicle character sketches exist mainly to remind the reader that the author has a loving wife and two perfect kids, a family equilibrium that his quixotic cornball streak threatens to upset. He is the dad who makes awkward breakfast conversation with fellow motel guests, and goads his kids into an earnest “This Land Is Your Land” sing-along at the site of Woody Guthrie’s old house. “Never go on a cross-country trip with me,” he writes, in one of many fits of self-deprecation, “for I can’t stop rattling on about what I assume or even imagine to be the significance of things, whether things are significant or not.”

Sullivan’s weakest character trait becomes the ballast of an enjoyably discursive meditation on the mundane. Adopting Lewis and Clark as a guiding myth,
Cross Country reverses their westward trail, roughing it—no DVD player—in a Chevy Impala from the Oregon coast to St. Louis, and then through to New York. From behind the wheel, floating on a perpetually caffeinated torpor, he confidently riffs on ruburbs, Kum & Go mart, cross-country journals, Holiday Inn, the Cannonball Run, and roadside coffee. Sullivan’s quasi-Gladwellian treatise on coffee lids illustrates the type of small-scale epiphany still available on the road: “Plastic coffee lids represent an area in the cross-country world where streamlined uniformity has not yet prevailed—they are the last vestiges of differentiation.”

As comprehensive as Cross Country sometimes seems, the first sentence of John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers indicates that Sullivan has only recounted half the saga of trans-American transit. “The little four-wheelers live on risk,” sneers Don Ainsworth, the operator of an 18-wheel chemical tanker loaded with hazmats. In other words, joyride or dharma-bum your way across the U.S.A., but don’t interrupt the current of commerce. On an interstate trail blazed by industrial pioneers, goods and services have the right of way.

Trucks, trains, and tugboats are the beneficiaries of McPhee’s plainclothes analysis in his 27th book of nonfiction. A connoisseur of dry subject matter—he’s written, what, 10 books on geology?—the longtime New Yorker writer should be a cornerstone of every American studies seminar for his decades-long quest to excavate the minutiae of our national bedrock. (His famous book on the Pine Barrens may well have inspired Sullivan’s 1998 The Meadowlands.) A lifelong Princetonian, McPhee has the ability to make the commonplace seem worthy of academic inquiry. His prose is so consistently modest and methodical, and so long taken for granted, that the droll pleasures of Uncommon Carriers register as almost revelatory.

Embedded into the world of long-distance trucking, McPhee quickly learns the jargon. “A dump truck was a bucket. A moving van was a bedbugger. A civilian was someone not a truck driver.” In due time, his pal Ainsworth reveals that he could just as easily mesh with a crowd of university elites, dropping references to Cormac McCarthy and George Plimpton, and locating the rare truck stops that provide his daily Wall Street Journal fix. When Ainsworth asks McPhee if he “know[s] of a writer named Joan Didion,” he is too shy to respond: “Take the ‘of’ out.”

Like Sullivan, McPhee recognizes that absorbing cross-country wisdom has an atavistic dimension. In one chapter, he and a friend re-enact the 1839 homemade skiff trip undertaken by brothers John and Henry Thoreau. Musing on Thoreau’s tendency to submit to tangential flights of fancy, McPhee calls the renowned transcendentalist “an author with the courage to digress.” As a seasoned traveler, Thoreau knew that moving in a straight line, or writing about moving in a straight line, would get him nowhere.