So many things crash through your senses while racing down the road:
billboards, church signs, memorials to car wreck victims, sinister factories blowing fire into the night. All of it is important, all of it seems full of secret meaning. Clues to something personal or national, it’s hard to say, but the bus depots, shabby motels, title pawn shops, penitentiaries, and blinking neon feel like pieces to a grand puzzle that will shatter as soon as you cut the ignition.
— James A. Reeves, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir
In 2005, James A. Reeves embarked on an unusual odyssey. He crisscrossed America alone in rental cars on weekends and during work breaks for the next five years. He logged over 55,000 miles, traveled to every state in the lower 48 but Maine, collected a dozen speeding tickets, and recorded with pen and camera the reality of America on back roads and superhighways.
When he set out, Reeves was 28 and had already earned acclaim as a designer and artist. He had worked at an array of jobs from retail sales clerk and pizza deliverer to elementary school teacher and college lecturer. But he was concerned about his seemingly aimless path, and was searching for answers about his country and about himself. So he launched a series of forays into the unknown, into the vastness of the continent. He records an America of stark contrasts: of desolation and decay as well as richness and marvels, of anger and kindness, of disenchantment and celebration, and of dread and hope.
In his new book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir (Norton), Reeves recounts the course of his travels with graceful and humble written observations and moving photographs of this large and complex nation. He takes the reader along great empty stretches of asphalt, as he listens to the drone of talk radio, eats at all-night diners, beds down at cheap motels, and fills up at lonely gas stations. As he drives the lonely roads and finds comfort in the desolate spaces, Reeves reflects on the terrible beauty and welcome quirkiness and wonder of America.
Reeves is a writer, educator, and designer. He attended the University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, and Tulane Law School. He has taught courses in design, research, history, and visual culture at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design. He is a partner Civic Center, a creative studio devoted to improving cities and civic conversation. He lives in New Orleans.
Reeves spoke by telephone from the road in Florida at the outset of his book tour in August.
Robin Lindley: What stimulated your book?
James A. Reeves: I started driving across America in 2004 for political reasons. When Bush was elected there was a lot of talk about the “real America” and Main Street, U.S.A., and I wanted to see what that looked like. I planned to interview people, take some pictures, and get a better sense of what was dividing the country (although by today’s standards, 2004’s polarization seems almost quaint). Once I got on the road, however, the political angle was less interesting to me than all the land and the people that I met along the way. I saw the endless loop of empty towns with dignified buildings book-ended by sprawl, I got into small adventures, and I started thinking about what it all means. It’s wonderful how a nation so big and chaotic holds together, even if it’s awkward at times.
Whenever I saved up enough money, I’d rent a car and drive. Slowly, these drives became more personal. I started wondering, “What should I be doing in this country? How do I become a man in America? And what does that mean?” The answer was clear for my grandfather and a little less clear for my father, but they both had faith in companies, pride in their country, and they started families at a young age. None of these metrics seemed to apply to me.
In 2009, I was living in Helsinki when my mom got sick. I came back to Michigan and rented a car for six weeks. She passed away suddenly and I didn’t know where to go next. So I drove for six weeks, out into the Mojave and down along the Mexican border to New Orleans. Then I decided I should do something with the notes and photographs that I collected.
Lindley: You repeat through the book this question: “What does it mean to be a man?” Can you talk about your search for meaning?
Reeves: In 1941 my grandfather drove across the country to deliver a car, and he hitchhiked home with a bathing suit salesman. He served in World War II when he was 19 and when he returned, he worked for the same company for 38 years. He seemed like such an adult, even when he was 19. When I was 19, I was writing bad poetry and changing my major every month.
The benchmarks for masculinity were: Go to war, start a family, work for a company. Some men followed them, others rejected them, but they were there. For my generation, faith in a paternal company or pride in a nation has dissolved into something else.
I was living in Finland while the health care debate was going on. Photos of angry protestors with confused Marxist/Fascist/Medicare signs. Finns would ask me, “Why don’t Americans want health care?” I couldn’t answer that question. If there was ever a great populist issue, health care should have been it.
The moment I landed back in America to visit my mom, I flipped on the radio and there’s Sean Hannity screeching, ”When has the American government ever done anything we can be proud of?” And I’d nearly forgotten: We hate our government. It’s an adversarial relationship because there’s so much distance between people and Washington DC. People in other nations seem to know what it means to be a citizen of that country, to be Finnish or German or Japanese. But in America, we’ve been arguing about what it means to be American since day one.
Sometimes this argument gets destructive. Our health scare system is antagonistic to most Americans. It certainly scared the hell out of my mom and she refused to go to the doctor for a simple check up because she was afraid of premiums, red tape, of losing her coverage. We never knew how sick she was. And the fact that this situation, one which requires basic empathy, somehow got wrapped up in a discussion of “freedom”? It’s like the best American traditions of individualism and self-reliance have been thrown into a funhouse mirror.
Lindley: Did you have any rules for the road to stay safe?
Reeves: I felt unsafe crossing the Continental Divide on chewed up loopy dirt roads and seeing signs like “This road is no longer federally maintained.” One time, there was a freak snowstorm in Arizona while I was crossing the Continental Divide. I reached the peak in this little matchbox rental car, and the interior of the valley was covered in ice and the car started sliding down. Even now I get a queasy feeling thinking about it, the car going over the edge, sliding into the treetops below. Another truck came flying around the corner and smashed the back of my car and I was going over the edge. But four high school students appeared in an enormous pick-up with snow chains, and they hopped out and started pushing the car away from the edge, forming a wall between my car and the edge, and I’m imagining the headline: “Unprepared motorist sends four local students to their death.” But then we rounded the corner, where all these other people had wiped out. Someone said, “Who’s got the beer?” and a little party happened.
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