I write in some haste today, because I leave North Dakota tomorrow for Colorado, where in the course of ten days I will give two talks about John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War hero who explored the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers in 1969. That’s what’s taking me to Colorado, but here’s why I am so excited.
The literature of the road has excited me all of my life. I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when I was sixteen or so, and I’ve read it half a dozen times since, including recently in the uncensored draft. He was said to have written it on a typewriter on one endless continuous sheet. So, when I left working at the Dickinson, ND, Press, to go to college, the editor gave me a box of continuous paper, designed for use in the Associated Press teletype machine. In college I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, about philosophy, self-reliance, and a father-son motorcycle trip from St. Paul to Bozeman, Montana. And then came Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his embedded reporting in Hells Angels. And then the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which historian James Ronda once called “America’s first great road story.”
Nobody who loves the literature of the road can fail to read two of its classics, one ancient and one recent. Homer’s Odyssey was created around 750 BCE, though the stories it tells are maybe a thousand years older than that. It is among my favorite pieces of literature. And John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1961), the great author’s last true book and one of his best.
All of my life I have longed for the open road. There is a chapter on that subject in my book Message on the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains.
So later this week in Denver I am renting a camper rig essentially identical to the one used by Steinbeck and, as Huck Finn put it, striking out for the territories ahead of the rest. Eat your hearts out! I have rented a pickup with a camper rig on the back—like Steinbeck—he named in Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse—and the only thing I know for sure is that I will wander in Colorado and Wyoming. I have a full week. I have deliberately refused to determine my itinerary or even a list of things I want to go see. As Robert Frost said, way leads on to way, and it’s best that we don’t really know our destination. All I know is that I want to leave plenty of time each day to sit at a mountain camp reading with the smell of pine in my nostrils and a fresh fish to fry for supper. I’ll stay in lesser state parks, take long walks in the cool of the evening, sip a little wine—Steinbeck would have it whiskey—gaze at the stars, and sleep with the windows open.
If I could have anything in the world—one rub of the great Aladdin’s lamp—I would have the opportunity to spend 18 months in a modest rig like the one I am renting, driving America, from sea to shining sea, from Key West to Astoria, and from San Diego to the top of Maine. I would visit most of the National Parks in the off season. I would follow the Lewis and Clark Trail from Pittsburgh to the Pacific. I would try to establish Theodore Roosevelt’s “footprint” in every state (where he spoke and stayed, what conservation properties he established, where he hunted and what, how he is commemorated in local memory). I would make “you are there” videos, post photo essays, write a daily blog, call in the Jefferson Hour from the road, and work on a book about Searching for America in a disillusioned time. I believe I could write a book about America that might make a difference. And meanwhile, I would achieve my most enduring and potent fantasy.
I know I beg for gifts on the Jefferson Hour. So, this is a big one. If you want to help me see and perhaps change our world, just send me a good used pickup and a modest new camper rig and you can live vicariously as I explore the redwoods, cook breakfast at the sources of our great rivers, beginning with Itasca in northern Minnesota, read Thoreau on the banks of Walden Pond, pay pilgrimage to the Hemingway shrine in Sun Valley, Idaho, grieve at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and ask for my free glass of ice water at Wall Drug or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.
Who knows? The trip might be a lovely update of Travels with Charley. It might equally be National Lampoon’s Vacation. It might even be Dante’s Inferno. You can never tell. But it is my deepest dream of what it means to be an American. My handlers insisted that I do a little starter journey with a rental rig. They assume that I, like Don Quixote, am in fact insane, and there is no Pancho Sanza to accompany me and rescue me just in time.
I’ll be posting daily at Clayjenkinson.com and Jeffersonhour.com. You cannot find America in a week and you certainly cannot find yourself, but you can start. I love America with all my heart. I want it to take a deep breath and start to stand for all that is right in the world again. It’s a sad indicator of the state of American civilization that I have wondered a few times if I should take a gun. But since all I own is a paint ball gun, purchased to drive off pheasants who were eating my garden, and I could not hit them at paint ball range, I’m guessing a baseball bat will have to suffice.
I end with the words of our mutual friend Thomas Jefferson, who understood why we must travel alone. “A traveler, sais I, retired at night to his chamber in an Inn, all his effects contained in a single trunk, all his cares circumscribed by the walls of his apartment, unknown to all, unheeded, and undisturbed, writes, reads, thinks, sleeps, just in the moments when nature and the movements of his body and mind require. Charmed with the tranquility of his little cell, he finds how few are our real wants, how cheap a thing is happiness, how expensive a one pride. . . . He wonders that a thinking mind can be so subdued by opinion, and that he does not run away from his own crouded house, and take refuge in the chamber of an inn.”
Stay tuned, my friends. If you never hear from me again, it’s because D.B. Cooper I have disappeared into the vast wilderness of America or joined a peyote cult in New Mexico. Almost certainly I will return renewed by America, America, America, chastened by my own ineptitude, and very glad I signed off on the insurance at the rental agency.
The road calls and I must not duck the summons.