American Wanderlust

Richard Grant explores the Southwest and the great wide open with grace and energetic prose.

Richard Grant may have a British passport, but he has an American soul.

Back in 1985, sick of English weather and the miasma of Thatcherism, Grant lit out for America with a few hundred dollars and an open itinerary. He spent the next 15 years hitchhiking, rail-hopping and bumming his way across the North American continent. Like Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy before him, he slept on desert floors and slurped coffee in truck-stop diners; he played fast and loose with the hearts of women. Even as middle-age approached, Grant was reluctant to settle down. He was poor, but he lived richly. He may have slept more nights than others alone, but at least he was free.

Eventually, Grant wanted to figure out what this urge for the great wide open was all about. Shaggy-dogged, big-hearted and stuffed with fabulous detail about Indians and Spanish explorers, American Nomads is the result. If you're the kind of person who despairs over tour buses and the homogenization of America's landscape, here's a book for you. In it, Grant introduces you to people like Boma Johnson, a government archaeologist who can walk hours in the desert without a drop of water.

There's B.J. McHenry, a whacked-out hobo who took to the roads after Vietnam and hasn't looked back since. And then there's Mike, a truck driver who plans to find a wife and raise a family on the road--all in the back of his Kenworth rig.

It is Grant's opinion that men (and they are nearly always are men) like B.J. and Mike and Boma are descendents of the nomadic Indian tribes and the Spaniards who encountered them when they came over looking for gold. "If you dig down to the roots of American wanderlust," says Grant, "it is a process of going native, of Europeans being conquered by America--by the immensity of its geography and the nomadic cultures they found here. And I have come to think of myself as some bastard, postmodern footnote to the tradition."

And so, in the next 300 pages, Grant toggles back and forth between his journeys and those of Cabeza de Vaca and Coronado, Spaniards whose footsteps he re-traces, settling certain myths--that the mustang was a native horse--and allowing others their rightful mystery. Although such experiments have a way of feeling formulaic, Grant is a lyrical, yet controlled writer. He can sketch landscape better than just about any travel journalist alive, which makes it easy to imagine ourselves in the boots of explorers in a strange land. Here he is describing one Spanish explorer's path to the plains in search of gold:

"They felt swallowed by space, disoriented by flatness. Mounted on horseback, a man could see for 30 or 40 miles in any direction, 80 miles if he could find a knoll, but if he sat on the ground, the rim of the world closed in to the distance of a musket shot. Occasionally, they would reach an abrupt break in the tablelands and find themselves at the edge of a cliff overlooking a river canyon, with willows and cottonwoods growing alongside it, but for most of the journey, they rode through dead-level, unchanging grasslands, rippling and undulating in the wind--a landscape more maritime than terrestrial, where the horizon was bounded only by the curvature of the Earth. Like the surface of the ocean, the grass parted briefly to let them through, then sealed up behind them, recording no sign of their passage."

Were it not for that botched analogy in the final sentence--how does the ocean surface part?--this would be an absolutely perfect paragraph. Almost every page in American Nomads features a piece of writing like this--prose so graceful and energetic that it makes you want to grab your wallet and head to the nearest bus station. In a way, one wonders if this isn't part of Grant's mission. Unlike many wanderers, Grant doesn't tell the mortgage-bound, job-holders among us that we are slaves. Instead, he shows us another way of life. A way of living, as it turns out, that has a long, sun-dappled history in America.

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