Not long ago, a friend mentioned a couple of travel related books he had just read and, when I found one of them available at the local library, I decided to give it a read. It’s Bill Barich’s Long Way Home – On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America. The subtitle is a reference to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie which Barich cites as an inspiration for his own road trip and book. The books’ basics are certainly similar. Each is the product of a successful American writer of a certain age undertaking a cross country road trip with hopes of learning something of a nation he’s been out of touch with for awhile. Steinbeck did it in 1960; Barich in 2008. Forty-eight years is not the only difference. Steinbeck did it in a custom built camper with unlimited time and, for all practical purposes, an unlimited budget. Barich did it in a rented Ford Focus, with a six week schedule, and a budget he calls “tight”. Steinbeck sort of circled the country, starting and ending at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. Barich makes one more or less straight pass through the center of the nation. But, for me, the biggest difference is that, while I’ve never really cared for Travels with Charlie, I ended up enjoying Long Way Home. Of course, Steinbeck didn’t seem to enjoy his own trip very much; Barich did. I think that rubbed off on me.
I probably also like the fact that Barich describes his route a little better than Steinbeck and that it goes through places much more familiar to me. He drives right through Ohio and tells of eating at a restaurant where I’d eaten just days before reading of his visit. It’s hard to ignore connections like that.
Long Way Home begins with Barich recounting how much he had enjoyed reading Travels with Charlie as a teenager. Stumbling across the book decades later in Dublin, Ireland, triggered plans for his own trip but re-reading it didn’t bring back the pleasure he remembered. I suspect the teenage Barich loved the idea of an unplanned journey across the USA enough to overlook shortcomings in its execution.
Both authors do their “learning” by observing the nation’s countryside, its small towns, and, less frequently, its cities. The story telling is most interesting when it involves some interaction with the locals and that usually happens, as you might expect, in the small towns. Both trips took place during election years and both authors sometimes attempt to get those locals to discuss their political feelings with mixed success. My impression is that Barich is more successful but I can’t back that up with hard facts. Both are pretty successful at getting folks to talk, in general terms, about their and the nation’s financial situation.
Of course, John Steinbeck wasn’t the first person to write a book about driving around the US and Bill Barich won’t be the last. As someone who enjoys writing trip journals, it stands to reason that I enjoy reading them. I enjoyed reading Long Way Home and even Travels with Charlie. Both are, as you would expect, very well written. Trip journals are snapshots. Like photographic snapshots, they record how something appeared to one person at one time. I have little desire to visit the country in Steinbeck’s snapshot while Barich’s is much more inviting. I suspect that On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America subtitle was more of an attention getting device than a description of Barich’s true intentions. I doubt he was really looking for Steinbeck’s America and I’m rather glad he didn’t find it.
Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, Bill Barich, Walker & Company, 2010, hardback, 9.4 x 6.4 inches, 256 pages, ISBN-10 0802717543