It’s hard not to envy Brad Herzog. He, his wife and two young sons live a few blocks from the ocean on California’s Monterey Peninsula, one of the most pleasant places on earth. Brad is a successful author, whose books include travel memoirs based on cross-country trips in an RV, and every summer, he and his family get to travel in a brand new motorhome while serving as ambassadors for the RV industry.
Oddly enough, Brad had never been in an RV or even visited a national park until he suggested to his wife that they buy a motorhome and spend a year traveling so he could write a book. That trip resulted in States of Mind, which recounts a year on the road in search of virtue in places such as Pride, Alabama; Wisdom, Montana, and Honor, Michigan.
The first book found an audience, thanks to Oprah Winfrey and a TV game show, and led to a second book Small World, which explores little places with famous names like London, Wisconsin; Paris, Kentucky, and Moscow, Maine. Completing a trilogy is his newest work, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-be Hero’s American Odyssey. This time Herzog has gone to Greek mythology to guide him to such places as Troy, Oregon; Siren, Wisconsin, and Pandora, Ohio.
All three books show how much a sharp and thoughtful observer can learn by going on the road and talking to people he meets along the way. Herzog’s encounters in small-town America remind us of Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” TV segments, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.
Herzog has a talent for finding fascinating people in small towns, eliciting their stories, and describing what he hears and sees in prose that is vivid, entertaining and insightful. In his new book, published this month by Citadel Press, Herzog introduces us to a host of intriguing characters including:
• Stephanie Haggard, a teacher in a tiny schoolhouse in eastern Oregon that has more computers (11) than students (8). She educates children from kindergarten through eighth grade with a very personal touch, taking them camping, skiing and kayaking. Children don’t just bring an apple to the teacher; they bring her a bag of apples and she bakes two pies, one for her and one for them.
• Hobo Dan, a man in his late 50s with no fixed address who has wandered his whole life, and is described by Herzog as “a beer-drinking, pot-smoking tumbleweed” but describes himself as “the last free man.” Herzog encountered Hobo Dan along the Missouri River in Montana, and, with some trepidation, joined him on a memorable canoe ride.
• Sheriff Dean Roland of Wisconsin’s Burnett County, who was chief of police in the little town of Siren when a tornado hit in 2001. The warning siren was knocked out by a lightning strike a few weeks before the tornado came, and it was left to Roland and others to race around, sounding the alarm. The town was flattened, but no lives were lost, and Roland paints a dramatic picture of that devastating time.
It says something about the state of non-fiction today that Herzog feels the need to point out that he doesn’t embellish his adventures on the road. “It’s all true by the way,” he told us. “I didn’t make anything up.”
Herzog takes extensive notes and travels with a tape recorder to capture interviews and record his observations. He also takes photos of the people and places he writes about so there is no doubt they are real.
He said he finds people living in rural places to be friendly and ready to share their stories. They are not rushing around like people in big cities, but are comfortably settled in. Only once does he remember having a door slammed in his face.
For his latest book, Herzog set out to explore what it means to live a heroic life. Using Greek mythology as a reference, he began his journey at Seattle’s Space Needle, gazing at Mt. Olympus, and ended it at Ithaca, New York, attending his class reunion at Cornell.
The 41-year-old author made the trip across country in a Winnebago Aspect, and the motorhome is central to his work. With a motorhome, he said, he can stay in those out-of-the-way places that may not have a motel or hotel, and can immerse himself in his surroundings.
Herzog was working as a freelance writer in his hometown of Chicago more than 15 years ago when he suggested to his wife, Amy, who was working in public relations, that they buy an RV and go on the road. To Brad’s surprise, Amy quickly agreed and they undertook the 11-month cross-country trip where Brad gathered material for States of Mind. The book had trouble finding readers until Brad appeared on the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” TV show, won $64,000, and talked about his book to Regis Philbin and a national audience. States of Mind rose on Amazon.com to No. 7 on its best-seller list from No. 122,040. That led to an appearance on “Oprah” and another spurt on the Amazon list.
Besides his travel trilogy, Herzog has written numerous magazine articles and also children’s books and a book on sports figures. But it is RVing that has largely shaped his life and career. It led to a home in Pacific Grove, travel memoirs and wonderful family vacations. Every summer, Brad and Amy and their two sons, Luke, 9, and Jesse, 8, tour the country in a new motorhome to promote family RVing for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. This summer they will tour the Midwest and Northeast for two months and by the end of the trip, they will have been to all 48 contiguous states. Traveling in a 35-foot Winnebago Vista, they will see Niagara Falls, Acacia National Park in Maine, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory in Vermont, and much more.
Sounds like nice work if you can get it.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.