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Thursday, July 4, 2013

From Sea to Shining Sea: being a review of The Longest Road by Philip Caputo

Primarily a journalist and a writer of novels, Philip Caputo wanders off the beaten path smack into the Travel genre with his latest book The Longest Road. He takes us on a road trip from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean, or, if you like. from the southernmost point to northernmost point of the United States -- that one would be able to drive between.

The 'longest road' trip was an idea that festered a while with Caputo. It germinated way back in 1996 when the author, on a hunting and fishing expedition up on Barter Island near Deadhorse, mused over the idea of Inuit children at the island's only school pledging allegiance to the same flag as Cuban-American children living on another island: his old stomping grounds of Key West some six thousand miles southeast. For reasons unknown to Caputo, the notion of the transverse journey "went dormant", burrowed away "cicada-like" for fourteen years. But he can pinpoint just what woke up the idea: mortality. The death of his father, a traveling journeyman who had always inspired his own inner nomad,  in 2010 quickened some biological Timex within him. At age 71 there was no time like the present for an epic journey.


So much for the premise, how about the purpose. Besides the obvious novelty of geographical conquest, just what is the underlying goal here? Is there something the author wants to accomplish or discover on this trek?Well, it turns out there is a question he's been dying to have answered. It's sort of a poll-like question: "What holds us together?" What is it that unites our great nation from coast to coast and from Key West to Deadhorse? Caputo is determined to slog across the deep south, the breadbasket, the Pacific Northwest on up through Canada and back into Seward's Folly to find out.

So he and his understanding wife, Leslie Ware, hitch up a leased late-model Airstream trailer to a Toyota Tundra, pile in along with their two English Setters and set off on the journey. Caputo decides to plot their course, when possible, generally along the same trail as Lewis and Clark's historic trek up the Missouri, across the Rockies, and down the Columbia River all the way to the Oregon coast. From there they would cross to Canada, "take the storied Alaska Highway to Fairbanks and finally the Dalton to Prudhoe Bay." He brings along a copy of The Journal of Lewis and Clark which he refers to along the way.

Amid the stories of local activism, anecdotal human interest, and deep rooted history, Caputo attempts to cobble together a cohesive narrative. Tied to his theme of national unity, the very highways and byways they travel become a metaphor, stringing us all together, connecting us, almost like the railroad and, then later, telephone cable had in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. William Least Heat-Moon accomplishes this wonderfully with his classic travelogue, Blue Highways, in which he travels the perimeter of America by way of the secondary roadways, or as they are shown on most maps: the blue lines, thus "Blue Highways". But I don't think the writing here makes as strong a case.

Philip Caputo, Leslie Ware, Sky, and Sage
at the Pacific Ocean

Philip Caputo is a superlative writer. His A Rumor of War is considered one the best memoirs ever penned concerning the Vietnam War, and Acts of Faith, a novel about an American pilot turned smuggler in war-torn Sudan,  was my pick for the best book of 2005. With the The Longest Road he touches on many issues which have divided and united the nation; issues like racism, poverty, Native American affairs, and alternative energy. Though the left leaning Caputo does indeed posit his views on many of them, he is not as predictable as you may think. For instance, at first he finds the vast acreage of wind turbines across eastern Washington state, unappealing to say the least. But after hearing from local officials and small business persons of all the benefits wind farms have afforded the chronically recession stricken Klickitat county he learns to tolerate them.

But it's these little pedantic episodes that bother me about The Longest Road. Caputo delivers what I would call teachable moments through several parts of the book which seem forced, almost manufactured. The best parts of a memoir happen when the reader is allowed to make their own discoveries, interpret the  truth independent from the author; On the Road, and Travels With Charley are good examples of that style of writing. Yet much of the book does allow for this, like the sections dealing with day to day interactions between Caputo and Ware. I only wish this was true of the entire journey. By the end of the trip, Caputo has a thermos full of water from three oceans, a bit more knowledge of the quirks of an Airstream trailer and some nice stories of, for the most part, good people they've met along the way. When you get to the heart of it, he really discovers nothing new, nothing more than the obvious, about what holds the country together. The answer lies in the very diversity of America spoken of in the author's premise: the melting pot. But perhaps more so it's the unrivaled tolerance Americans have for such cultural heterogeneity.


  • Title: The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
  • Author: Philip Caputo
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • Publishing Date: 7/16/13
  • ISBN-10: 0805094466

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