Taking the Great American Roadtrip

In the spirit of Kerouac and Steinbeck, the celebrated travel writer fulfills a childhood fantasy: to drive across his native land

Fleeing the clogged freeways of Los Angeles, Paul Theroux set forth into an America both lonelier and lovelier than the one he expected to find. (Todd Bigelow / Aurora / IPN)
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"That was one of the reasons. At first we had no idea why we were chosen for this. But it was because this is such a quiet place. Trust. Good people. No security. Very simple to gain access—to park a truck in a street, even at a federal building, then walk away. We were the easiest target." He shook his head. "So many children..."

Leaving Oklahoma City past the Kickapoo Casino, through Pottawatomie County and the towns of Shawnee and Tecumseh, I came to Checotah and passed a billboard, "Home of Carrie Underwood—American Idol 2005," and wondered whether billboards, like bumper stickers, suggested the inner life of a place. Farther east another billboard advised in large print: "Use the Rod on Your Child and Save Their Life."

The road through eastern Oklahoma was lined with shaggy trees and broad meadows, all the way to Arkansas. The straight, flat, fast I-40, which I'd been using, with detours, all the way from Arizona, now followed the general contour and sometimes the course of the Arkansas River, a major feeder into the Mississippi and the waterfront of Little Rock. Little Rock, the name, had been on my mind since I'd been a boy. It signified racial confrontation, the most divisive American issue of my school days. Black students exactly my age were at first kept from attending Central High when it became integrated in 1957; finally President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to ensure their entrance.

I drove past Central High, a lugubrious building, then headed to the Clinton Library, looking like a prettified trailer home cantilevered off the bank of the muddy river. But this riverfront, where I had lunch at the Flying Saucer café, was the liveliest part of what seemed to me a melancholy city.

All the way to Memphis I dodged the big scary trucks, and also realized that I had judged Arkansas a little too harshly, because the eastern part of the state was rich in agriculture, with plowed fields and sloping woods, as far as the Mississippi. Monumental in its size and its slowness, meandering through the middle of the great country, the river is a symbol of the life and history of the land, the "strong brown god" in the words of T. S. Eliot, who was born upstream in St. Louis.

The approach from the west, seeing Memphis grandly arranged on the bluff of the far bank, satisfied my sense of being a romantic voyeur. I found my hotel—the Peabody, famous for its resident ducks; and at the shop in its lobby I met the man who claimed to have sold Elvis his first fancy clothes. Historic Beale Street was just a few blocks away: this quarter mile of pavement, advertising itself as Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock and Roll, was also the best place to find a drink and dinner—B.B. King's restaurant and blues club or the Pig on Beale farther down the block.

By design and intention, mine was not a leisurely trip. I drove home in installments. Traveling, slapping my map and trying to make sense of the transitions, I was constantly asking people directions. I always got help without any suspicion. My rental car's New York license plates aroused friendly curiosity all over the West and the South. At first I regretted that I did not know the South better; and then I began to think of this deficit as a travel opportunity, reflecting on the South as I had once contemplated parts of Europe or Asia: the dream of traveling through what was to me not just an unknown region but one that promised hospitality.

This feeling stayed with me all the way through the rolling hills to Nashville, where over lunch in a diner, I was greeted by the people at the next table, who saw I was alone and wanted me to feel welcome. I drove north on I-65, from Nashville into Kentucky. It was a special day in Owensboro, where a local man, Specialist Timothy Adam Fulkerson, killed in action near Tikrit, Iraq, was being honored: a section of U.S. 231 was being named for him, giving this country road a deeper meaning.

Kentucky, well tended and fenced, and the soft green of its fields and hills, the sight of horses and farms, made it seem an orderly Eden, parklike—another place to return to. This part of the state was rich in classic names—Lebanon and Paris, but Athens and Versailles had been tamed into "Ay-thens" and "Ver-sails."

One of the accidental themes of this road trip was my encounters with New Americans—the Iranian at the rental agency in Los Angeles, the Chinese gamblers in Las Vegas and my Ethiopian taxi drivers; the Somalis—robed, veiled, moving in a group of nine—I encountered in a Kinko's in Arizona; the man from Eritrea in Memphis, and here in Lexington, Mohamed from Egypt, in his convenience store.


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