Ever since Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled from St. Louis to the Oregon coast 200 years ago, travelers have been chronicling their cross-country trips. A few of these tales like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways have become classics. The Longest Road by Philip Caputo is at that level—engaging, lively and revealing.
Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize winner best known for his memoir from the Vietnam War, A Rumor of War, traveled from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 2011, talking to people to find out what holds America together at a time of extreme polarization in politics and attitudes.
For this mission he acquired a 2007 Toyota Tundra and rented a 1962 Airstream Globetrotter trailer, 19 feet in length. Then, he set out with his wife and two English setters to explore the country, skipping the big cities, the suburbs and the interstates whenever possible.
Because Caputo, a former newspaper reporter, is skilled at drawing people out, memorable vignettes emerge. We meet plainspoken and levelheaded ranchers in Missouri, adventurers and long-haul truckers in Alaska, a tribe of hippies in Tennessee, and the last residents of a dying town in Kansas. A Lakota shaman and entrepreneur shares the wisdom of his people while also explaining how he built a business out of fry bread tacos with the help of the Food Channel.
We learn there are many good people in the world like the homeless couple who were on a mission to rescue drug and alcohol abusers in Florida, and the volunteers who came from all over the country to help hurricane victims in Alabama. And we also learn that there is a lot of misinformation out there, all sorts of rumors and lies that shape opinions and confirm prejudices.
Caputo may not have found a definitive answer to his question of what holds the country together, but he has produced a revealing portrait of its heartland at a particular moment in time.
The Longest Road is published by Henry Holt and Company with a cover price of $28.