Nonfiction

Philip Caputo takes to the road to explore nation’s commonalities

 
 
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean. Philip Caputo. Holt. 320 pages. $28.
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean. Philip Caputo. Holt. 320 pages. $28.

The romance of the roadtrip is as much a part of the American tradition as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and banks too big to fail.

Acclaimed novelist and journalist Philip Caputo first envisioned an epic Florida-to-Alaska roadtrip during a 1996 hunting trip in the frozen North. Oft-discussed but never executed, Caputo found himself ready to hit the road after absorbing a double-dose of unblinking mortality in 2010: The death of his father at age 94, and his fast-approaching 70th birthday.

This gauzy sense of grief and melancholy — more psychic miles in the rearview mirror than over the next horizon — permeates The Longest Road. Caputo and his wife, Leslie, and their two English setters, Sage and Sky, set off in 2011 from tropical, freewheeling Key West, for the bleak, oil-company outpost of Deadhorse, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. They rented a vintage 1962 Airstream trailer named Ethel, towing her behind a Toyota Tundra with a hardtop cab where the dogs bed down during a four-month journey covering 8,314 miles.

In interviews, Caputo has invoked Steinback, Kerouac and William Least Heat Moon as his road-tripping lodestars. But he’s also treading the well-worn terrain of Alexis de Tocqueville, trying to define the American experience. Caputo wants to know what keeps the nation together after a two-front war, increasingly polarized political extremes and a growing chasm between haves and have-nots.

“With enough time, gas, money, and nerve, I could drive from the southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road,’’ he writes. “At one end, I would look upon the Gulf Stream and the Southern Cross, and at the other, the Arctic Ocean and the Northern Lights. I would leave my country for part of the journey, but not my language or my culture. And possibly I would discover along the way what Inupiat Americans and Cuban Americans and every other kind of American had in common besides a flag.”

Caputo purposely plots a course filled with two-lane blacktops and small towns over the homogeneous efficiency of the interstates. They take their time winding out of Florida and the Deep South via the Natchez Trace. In the Midwest, they pick up the historic trail of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and loosely follow it along the banks of the Missouri through the Badlands, across the Rockies and along Oregon’s Columbia River to the Pacific. Caputo effectively sprinkles references from Lewis and Clark’s journals during the passages through wide open spaces.

They encounter a diverse and occasionally colorful cast of characters along the way. A skilled and seasoned reporter, Caputo strikes small veins of storytelling gold when they exist. They spend some bittersweet moments volunteering with others in the aftermath of the tornadoes that decimated Tuscaloosa, Ala. Other highlights include some quirky Tennesseans living off the grid after losing their homes when the bubble burst in 2008 and an entrepreneurial Lakota Sioux chef named Ansel Woodenknife.

The narrative suffers a tad from the “Man on the Street’’ phenomenon: As thousands of rookie reporters know, sometimes the “Man on the Street’’ isn’t interesting and doesn’t have much to say. A prescient Missouri farmwoman tells Caputo the belief that Americans have a lot in common binds us together — even if it’s not really true.

By the end, Caputo has learned as much about maintaining his marriage in cramped quarters as he has about the boundless hope at the heart of the American character.

At this stage in a distinguished career, expecting a novelist and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist of Caputo’s stature to reach the heights of his classic Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, or riveting novels such as Horn of Afric a and Indian Country is unfair. Such classics are where readers new to Caputo should begin if they want to gain a more complete appreciation for his body of work. But although The Longest Road isn’t seminal, it’s an easy, entertaining and at times provocative summer read.

Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.

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