Friday, January 3, 2014

American Journey

Pushing 70, Philip Caputo set out from Key West, Florida, headed for Deadhorse, Alaska, with his wife and two dogs packed into a Toyota Tundra pickup truck pulling an antique Airstream trailer. The aluminum airplane-inspired trailer that would be home for most of the summer of 2011 was called a Globetrotter, a moniker that also fit Caputo—the acclaimed author of a Vietnam war memoir, foreign correspondent in the Middle East and elsewhere, and borders-jumping novelist. 

“With enough time, gas money and nerve, I could drive from the southernmost point to the northernmost reachable by road,” he wrote in the preface to The Longest Road, his recently published journal of a modern day trek across America. “And possibly I would discover along the way what Inupiat Americans and Cuban Americans and every other kind of American had in common besides a flag.”

Along the way he found wanderers, settlers, drifters and homebodies of all sorts. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he found thousands of Americans from across the nation streaming in to help survivors of a tornado that had pulverized much of the town. Volunteering to help at a staging area for donated supplies for now-homeless residents, Caputo noticed a remarkable scene: “all the volunteers were white, all the supervisors were black. This in Tuscaloosa, where on a sizzling June day in 1963, defying a federal court order to integrate state schools, Governor Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to bar two black students from enrolling.”

In another part of Alabama, a diner displayed an anti-Obamacare poster depicting the president “with a bone through his nose…superimposed on the torso of an African witch doctor, clad in a leopard-skin loincloth.”

While getting an oil change in Grand Island, Nebraska, Caputo was astounded to hear two men with Sudanese facial features speaking Arabic. At the post office, a white guy “wallpapered in tattoos” loudly muttered about “Mexicans…and Somalis and Sudanese comin’ in, and bringin’ bedbugs with ‘em.” The “Tattoo-man” claimed that the government provided cars, houses and jobs for foreigners at the local Swift meatpacking plant.

An Internet check by Caputo’s wife Leslie found that Swift had recruited Africans with refugee status to work in plants that the Department of Homeland Security had raided, deporting undocumented workers from south of the border. There was no evidence that the government provided cars or houses to the meatpacking workers.

“One of the things we learned on the trip was that the age of instant communications has not slowed but accelerated the spread of myth and rumor,” Caputo wrote of an earlier encounter with a woman in Kansas who was convinced that a bill in Congress intended to strengthen safety regulations in food processing plants would ban backyard vegetable gardens. “Because the strands of truth and baloney are seamlessly woven into the Web, it’s very difficult to figure out which is what.”       

Rather than counter passionately held myths, Caputo preferred interviewing a variety of folks he met along the way—cowboys and farmers, displaced Indians and descendants of soldiers who destroyed Native American communities, ecologists and fossil fuel-burning enthusiasts—and ask what they thought the nation had in common.

“I think the country definitely is in disarray,” said a woman wrangler at a dude ranch near Livingston, Montana. “At the same time, to grow as a country, we need to have conflict, and conflict is healthy, conflict is good. But the media has this awesome way of blowing it out of proportion.”

Caputo liked that quote and repeated in the Epilogue. Yet he was disgruntled when he encountered in scenic Anacortes, Washington, what he felt was an “out of place” face off between peace activists with signs such as “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER” on one street corner and a pro-military group sporting Tea Party slogans including “IMPEACH OBAMA” on the other side.

One of the fuming support-the-military vets told Caputo he “feared that the country could blow apart if the economy worsened, because ‘there’s a lot of hatred of government right now. We’ve created a society of gimmes. … Gimme a house. Gimme my health care. Gimme me my social security. … We’ve got so many gimmes, who’s going to do the work?”

“I had to wonder if Dan himself might be in the gimme class,” Caputo interjected in his account of the street corner tirade. “As a retired law enforcement officer, he must be earning a generous public-employee pension; as a veteran, he was eligible for free medical care through the VA. I didn’t get a chance to ask; Dan rolled on farther and farther from supporting the troops, hitting more Tea Party talking points…”

Caputo seemed less interested in interviewing the "peaceniks," who he dismissed as staging “a ritual that had begun two weeks after 9/11 and had been going on for one hour every Sunday since, as regularly as church services.”

Creeping through traffic in Seattle, his pessimism that progress can be achieved through civic actions by concerned citizens boiled over after reading a newspaper article about how a plan to extend a light rail system to the suburbs was blocked by a real estate developer who bankrolled a political campaign. “Did the thoughts and wishes and opinions of the common man and woman count any longer,” he wrote, “assuming they ever had?”

Caputo’s search for the soul of modern America rolled across the border with Canada and onward into Alaska. As with much of the rest of the trip, his journal on the northern leg notes the passing scenery, brief encounters with local folks, life on the road with two dogs in cramped quarters and not always harmonious relations with his wife—who he conceded was usually right to counter his quirks. 

In the tiny town of Wiseman, Alaska, a local conservationist blurted out his perspective on the nation that had decimated buffalo, prairies, mountains, rivers and seashores that Caputo had noted throughout this long drive often harbor contaminated industrial age ruins.

“Trophy hunting wiped out the bulls,” the man said of a large caribou herd that the state Fish and Game Department oversaw. “They allowed the hunters to annihilate the herd.” Now the state agency was extending this policy to the caribou in his part of Alaska, selling more out-of-state hunting licenses. “In fifteen or twenty years there won’t be any wildlife resources left in Alaska,” the man said, as his wife shushed him to stop talking. “And you stop recording him,” she said to Caputo.

After traveling 8,314 miles through every variety of landscape and human activity in North America, Caputo arrived at his destination: “Deadhorse is the strangest and ugliest town in the country…where the word plant is used only in its industrial context,” he wrote.  

Here was headquarters for the massive Prudhoe Bay oil fields operations, which dominates life in northern Alaska. A tour guide who drove Caputo and his wife for an hour through drill-rig operations to the Arctic Ocean laconically noted: “’Polar bears are losing population because of decreasing sea ice,’ he said, not mentioning that global warming was shrinking the sea ice, or that global warming was linked to the burning of fossil fuels.”

Once again, Caputo seemed less interested in finding someone working to change things for the better, rather than telling entertaining stories about those who blithely rattled on about a lifestyle that uses up the terrain that sustains them and shrugs off any sense of responsibility.

At a recent reading from his book at a literary bar in New York City, Caputo entertained the audience by invoking the idiosyncratic voices of a couple of characters he met on the trip. On reading the book, I was less impressed by these stories than by the descriptions of desolation that previous cocksure characters left in their wake.

Consider these brusque notes about the final leg to return the rented trailer: “Eighty miles out of Lubbock, I picked up U.S. 180 east, a high wind blasting across the stretched-out land, dust devils pirouetting in the distance. … Triple-digit temperatures, no rain for months, range fires consuming grass … ‘Like the dust bowl days all over again,’ an Oklahoman had told me in Santa Fe.”

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