In the early 1990s when Kevin Costner released his groundbreaking epic film Dances with Wolves, I recall seeing a commercial for it, and was so intrigued by the narrator's statement: "He went in search of America, and ended up finding himself." I've always loved that idea, and countless books have followed that same line of thinking -- finding the self through the journey. And, of course, we often believe there is something unique in the American ethos, our national identity, that comes from are inherent restlessness and mobility. On The Road captured me in middle school, like it did many a young aspiring vagabond. In college I was intrigued by an adventurous work of non-fiction called Mississippi Solo by Eddy Harris, a black man who canoed the length of our greatest river and recorded his observations about heading into the heart of the country. The allusion-filled idea of a black man taking the river into the deep South, "from where there ain't no black folks to where they still don't like us much," was a heavy sociological current in the narrative.
Most recently, I have enjoyed another book about a trip in search of America and the quest to understand ourselves. Tom Zoellner's The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America is an intriguing collection of long form essays about various national locations and our national consciousness through the eyes of a veteran journalist. As I read Zoellner's work, I also picked up and started re-reading John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, about his cross country trip near the end of his life with just his dog and the people he encountered along the way for company. And while I was reading those two, I also started, but haven't finished, another work along these lines I'd only heard of in passing, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. The title refers to the color of these non-interstate roads on local maps. Each of these books offers a national perspective through a personal lens, and they remind me of our simple humanity.
These kinds of stories have always captured my imagination, and I'll pick them up whenever I can. The books are about writers traveling, but they are not travel writing. At least not in a traditional sense. And, I do enjoy travel writing quite a bit, reading articles and books about locales specifically for the visiting leisure purpose. But Zoellner, Steinbeck, and Least Heat Moon are onto something else entirely. Like I said, they are writers traveling, but the work is not travel writing.