Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Longest Road

Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean

Philip Caputo

Henry Holt and Co.



I don't know why my dream fell into such a long slumber. However, after careful investigation, I can identify what woke it up.

At the root was a condition I've suffered from for most of my life. I trace its origins to my childhood in the forties and fifties, when my father, a traveling machinist for the Continental Can Company, maintained and repaired the machines leased to canning factories in central and northern Wisconsin. He would leave our home in suburban Chicago in the late spring, and when school let out for the summer he returned to fetch my mother, my sister, and me to spend the next three months with him.

After the suitcases were stowed in the trunk of the company car, always a no-frills Chevrolet, we would head north on U.S. 45 or U.S. 41, then two-lane blacktops. Some kids would have been sad to leave their friends for the summer, but that moment when we swung onto the highway never failed to fill me with a tingling anticipation. We lived in different places over the years—backwoods cabins without indoor plumbing, lakeside cottages, houses in towns with Indian names like Shawano, or French names like Fond du Lac, or plain-vanilla American names like Green Lake—but the destination never excited me as much as the getting there. I loved to feel the wind slapping me through the open windows, and to inhale the strong smells of manure and silage as the Chevy rolled past corn and pea and beet fields speckled with the straw hats of the migrant workers who brought a touch of the exotic to the midwestern countryside—Mexican braceros, tall Jamaicans. I loved watching farmhouses whiz by, barns decorated with faded advertisements for feed companies and chewing tobacco, and the landscape change from field and pasture to somber pine forests jeweled with lakes.

Long ago, when I was a correspondent in the Middle East, I spent a couple of weeks wandering the Sinai Desert with bedouin tribesmen and an Israeli anthropologist familiar with their culture. He told me that their migrations were not always dictated by the need to find water or better grazing for their herds; sometimes they struck their tents and began to move for no discernible reason. He was forced to conclude that they were animated by an impulse, perhaps lodged in their nomadic genes, to get going, it didn't matter where.

I knew the feeling.

My father died on March 2, 2010, at age ninety-four. My wife, Leslie Ware, and I were at our house in Patagonia, a small southern Arizona town where we spend part of each winter, when my sister, Pat, phoned with the news from Scottsdale. My father had gone to live there with her and my brother-in-law after my mother's death in 2001. His passing, my sister said, had been quick, painless, even serene, so I felt more grateful than mournful as Leslie and I drove to Scottsdale for the memorial service. It was held at a spanking-new, faux-adobe mortuary that could have been mistaken, from the outside, for an upscale desert spa. Before the service began, I spent a few minutes alone with my father in a back room. He hadn't been dressed yet, and he lay on a steel gurney, a sheet covering him to the neck to hide his nakedness and the embalmer's incisions. His hair had been combed, a pleasant expression put on his face, makeup applied to restore his complexion to its former ruddiness. The cosmetics were so artful and he'd been around so long that I had a hard time believing he was really, truly gone. It became easier when I laid a hand on his forehead, cold as a rock in winter.

I spoke to him nonetheless, on the off chance that he could hear me, telling him that I would always remember him, that I would miss him, that although we'd had some sharp differences I'd never stopped loving him. Then I reminisced about the trip we'd made to Wisconsin a year after my mother's death. We'd gone to Shawano Lake to look for the beach where I'd taken my first steps in 1942. He wanted to see it again. Our only guide was an old photograph showing my mother holding my hand as I toddled uncertainly in the sand. There in the mortuary I reminded him of how amazed we'd been to find that beach, hardly changed in sixty years. As we stood on it, he'd grown nostalgic and talked about his early days on the road, traveling from cannery to cannery with his oak toolbox, its felt-lined drawers crammed with the precision instruments of his trade. "There was nothing like it," he'd said, wistfully. "To be in a car with everything you need, nothing more, and an open road in front of you."

No two people could have been less alike than my father and Jack Kerouac, yet there had been the same spirit in the words he'd spoken as in those Kerouac had written: "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road."

My father's death plunged me into melancholy reflections on old age and the brevity of life, even one as long as his. In a less-than-celebratory mood, I marked my sixty-ninth birthday later that spring, after Leslie and I were back at our home in Connecticut, where we live most of the year. The milestone of seventy was coming up fast. In this era of longer life spans, you can kid yourself at sixty that you have plenty of time left, but seventy has the unmistakable ring of mortality. You quit cigarettes and hard partying years ago, you eat healthy servings of fruits and vegetables, you take your Lipitor faithfully, you exercise, and still you wake up at the hour of the night when it's impossible to entertain illusions, and you can almost see him at the foot of your bed, black wings spread as if about to enfold you.

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me . . . Well, a lot of my life was behind me . . . and ahead?

As if struck by an electrical charge, the sleeping cicada born on Barter Island cracked its shell, rose in flight, and began to buzz insistently in my ear. By road from the subtropics to the Arctic.

I went to my laptop, looked up directions from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska. A map of North America flashed on the screen. A blue, diagonal line zigzagged across it, marking the most direct route from the southernmost to the northernmost point—5,475 miles, according to the driving directions. And that was one way, not to mention that I would have to drive from Connecticut to Key West—1,486 miles—just to get to the starting point. Then, of course, I would have to return to Connecticut from Deadhorse—4,780 miles. The total distance—11,741 miles—gave me sticker shock. Round it up to twelve thousand. Almost halfway around the world! It seemed slightly mad, but then it might do me good. To make such an epic road trip, discovering places I'd never been, rediscovering others, never knowing what I'd find beyond the next curve or hill, would be to recapture the enchantment of youth, a sense of promise and possibility.

The cicada chirped incessantly in my head. I clicked back to the first map. Looking at it brought on a mixture of eagerness and reluctance. The buzzing grew more shrill. If you don't go now, geezer, you never will. I listened to my inner cicada, and the uneasiness subsided. If I'd learned anything, it was that the things you do never cause as much regret as the things you don't.

But I didn't decide to go purely for the adventure. Fourteen years earlier, standing in front of the Harold Kaveolook School, I'd asked, What held the nation together? What made the pluribus unum?

Now I revised that question—would it continue to hold together?—because the America of 2010 wasn't the America of 1996. I'd been living in it the whole time but in some ways did not recognize it.

The worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, millions of homes under water, and millions of people out of work. The wages of the employed stagnant, except for CEOs, investment bankers, and the practitioners of casino capitalism on Wall Street, all of whom were making more money than ever. People were angry. In Texas, crowds at a political event had called on their governor to secede from the union. In Nevada, a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat had suggested that if conservatives like herself didn't get their way they might resort to armed insurrection. Strangely enough, much of this fury wasn't directed at the financial mandarins who had brought the nation to the edge of the abyss; no, it fell on citizens like the aging engineer who, afflicted with Parkinson's disease, was mocked and abused at a Tea Party rally in Ohio because he supported health-care reform. That was the America I didn't recognize—spiteful and cruel.

In geology, a rift is a long, narrow zone where stresses in the earth's crust are causing it to rupture. In North America, one such formation is the Rio Grande Rift, which is pulling apart at the rate of two millimeters a year. You might say, with considerable license, that it's very slowly tearing the continent in half. I couldn't help but see it as a metaphor for the stresses that seemed to be ripping our political and social fabric. But was the country really as fractured as it appeared in the media? As bitter and venomous? It wasn't my intention to take the pulse of the nation; the United States is too big, too complicated a mosaic of races and nationalities and walks of life to have a single pulse or even two or three. But I thought I'd ask people, when possible, the question I'd put to myself: what holds us together?

Copyright © 2013 by Philip Caputo