“Here the earth, as if to prove its immensity, empties itself. Gertrude Stein said: ‘In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.’ The uncluttered stretches of the American West and the deserted miles of roads force a lone traveler to pay attention to them by leaving him isolated in them. This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for relief to the bigness outside — a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change. The isolating immensity reveals what lies covered in places noisier, busier, more filled up. For me, what I saw revealed was this (only this): a man nearly desperate because his significance had come to lie within his own narrow ambit.” ― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
My mother earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Cornell University prior to earning her law degree at Columbia Law School. She was a voracious reader and an earnest intellectual. Mom encouraged us to read books and the bookshelves at home were always flush with literature. The first book she recommended to me was John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.” Then a year or so later, Ralph Waldo Emerson “Essays” and at age 15, “Catcher in the Rye.” The latter was a surprise because it was the most banned book in America in high schools and libraries at the time, but there it was on our bookshelf. I grabbed it and took it to my mother and asked her if I could read it. “Read anything you want,” Mom said; and so, I did.
Mom probably didn’t imagine that Steinbeck would lead me to Kerouac and Pirsig; Emerson to Castaneda and Abbey; and Salinger to Ginsberg, or maybe she did. To this day, I am still learning surprising things about my mother.
On the Road
We will have a lot of time on the road. Certainly, we can listen to a few audiobooks in around the music and talk. So, I’ve downloaded Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (a.k.a. ZAMM) and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road: The Original Scroll”—two books that influenced me in my early twenties. I’ll probably start with Kerouac on day one between Holbrook and Farmington, and then ZAMM intermittently for the long, tedious drives between Laramie, WY and Park City, Lake Mary, MT to Calgary, AB, and Blue River to Kamloops, BC.
I am also bringing a few books to read relevant chapters out loud from when one or the other is driving—”The Best American Travel Writing,” 2012 and 2013, William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” and for our amusement, Bill Bryson’s “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away.”
Suzanne and I both write, and we encourage our kids to do so as well and both write well. So, Neo and I will also write every day and keep journals. I want him to think and write about what he has learned on the road. I am certain he will thank me one day.
“What?” A small bird rises from a tree in front of us.
“What should I be when I grow up?”
The bird disappears over a far ridge. I don’t know what to say. “Honest,” I finally say.”