Hitting the road, in search of the real America

Author James A. Reeves crisscrossed America in a rental car. What he found was a touching portrait of loss, community resilience, and the overbearing hand of government fear.

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The Road to Somewhere

Author James A. Reeves crisscrossed America in a rental car. What he found was a touching portrait of loss, community resilience, and the overbearing hand of government fear.

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.             

I felt most unsafe, however, at the hands of the government: All the random car searches and border patrol checkpoints. Once I was driving home from Kansas and it was midnight and a cop pulled me over. I was six miles over the speed limit. His partner comes out with a drug dog. They were going to search my car. They said this strip was known as “Meth Alley.” It’s where they have all the meat rendering plants and you need hard drugs to function there, the smell is so intense.

The cop tells me, “Nobody drives usually this road at night except drug runners, and a single man driving a rental car at this time of night will get pulled over.” And we got into this intense scene where the cop’s peppering me with random questions like, “What color are your eyes? What do your parents do? How many pairs of pants did you pack? Where are you going?” I told them, "I’m going to see my friend in Los Angeles." “What’s her name?” he asked. “Caroline Oh,” I said. “What’s her last name?” "Oh. She’s Korean." And he asks if I’m being smart and the dog’s barking and scratching at the windows and I keep saying her last name is “Oh” and it turns into this menacing “Who’s-on-First” routine. 

The security checks along the border were really surprising. You pull up to these booths in the middle of the interstate and they’ll ask “Are you a citizen?”  But it’s just a pretext to search your vehicle.  I never have anything in my car. I don’t even drink, but several times they’ve said the dogs smelled something and they’ll take my keys and identification and pretty soon all my luggage is opened up on the pavement. It’s scary because you don’t know when it’s going to end, and they’re so disrespectful. They want to see you scared. You’d think the “Don’t tread on me” crowd would be more upset about this, but everybody in this country seems awfully quiet about these intrusions by the state. Procedures that were unimaginable only a few years ago have become our new normal. 

Lindley:  Your book echoes with repeated themes in our history.  War runs like a red thread through your book with the stories of your grandfather in World War II and your father’s service in the Vietnam era, and then your presence at an anti-Iraq War rally.  That rally was very reminiscent of peace marches in the sixties, down to the classic sign, “War is unhealthy for children and other living things.”

Reeves:  It seems we’re always at war, yet it’s abstract and we go about our business as usual because we have a professional army and no draft now. When I was driving around, the people in small towns seem much more aware of the war, with bronzed cannons in their town squares and photos of residents currently serving hanging in the lobby of Walmart and Wendy’s. People from cities serve in the military too, but the political narrative seems to be that people from small towns fight our wars and therefore this makes them more American.

As I drove around the country, I’d meet strangers and we’d talk of war. We’d list the ways each war defined its generation in a particular way, how some wars seemed righteous, others felt shameful, and other wars are just abstract blips in our news feed. Each war. Because we’re always fighting somewhere. Today I think America is defined by the way in which its citizens ignore its wars.

Lindley:  In your book, you capture the deterioration of small towns on the one hand, and also a pervasive sameness of ubiquitous shopping malls with maybe a Sears — where your dad and grandfather worked — a Walmart, a Walgreens, a Home Depot, a McDonalds — a sort of generic America.

Reeves:  It’s odd, I can drive into a strip mall parking lot anywhere in the country and on some lizard-brain level, I’ll know how to navigate it. There’ll probably be an anchor store like Target or Best Buy straight ahead, a JoAnn’s Fabric off to the left, and a Radio Shack over there, and maybe a Starbucks Drive-Thru on an island next to the Chili’s or Outback Steakhouse. You’d think these spaces would be different in Maine or New Mexico or Montana, but they’re all the same. It’s like you’re everywhere and nowhere.

Someone pointed out to me that the stores in a mall had awnings. Why? It won’t rain inside the mall. It’s this strange idea of recreating a city while neglecting the old Main Streets down the road.

Lindley:  In practically every small town you describe, the downtown or main street area is a place of abandoned shops and decay.

Reeves:  It’s depressing to keep seeing this. Sometimes it feels like the end of days — especially if you’re listening to AM radio while looking at it. But there are some bright spots.

We’re paying more attention to downtowns again. Towns are hanging banners from lampposts encouraging visitors to spend time in historic Fairfield or wherever. And words like “sustainable” and “local” have entered the national conversation, whereas ten years ago people would tell you to go back to your commune if you talked that way. The devastating urban renewal policies of the 1960s weren’t that long ago. These things can be undone. In New Orleans we’re talking about removing a highway overpass. In ten or twenty years, I hope we’ll all look back and say, “Remember when we abandoned our cities to live in cheap ranch houses, sit in traffic, and shop in concrete boxes under fluorescent lights? That was strange.”

Lindley:  Your photographs depict mainly landscape and architecture but few of the people on the road.

Reeves:  I had some pictures of people that I met, but I ultimately wrote about being alone in a place and how I experienced it. There’s so much empty space in the country, and so many empty towns and junkyards. I should probably start taking pictures of different things. I have enough pictures of midnight gas stations. But man, a lonely gas station at night is a heartbreaking thing to me . . . it’s filled with all this possibility.

Lindley:  Your writing and photography capture that sense of lost possibility. The people you meet are often desperate or impoverished or on the edge, and you offer understanding. You’re a remarkable observer.

Reeves:  Thank you. Many were doing amazing things, particularly in the desert. I ran into a guy who was building solar powered bicycles out of old highway signs. All that space out there where nobody’s paying attention, and all these people doing interesting stuff.

Lindley:  Your writing is very evocative.  Who are some of your influences?

Reeves:  I’d love to have an incredible list of obscure yet influential authors that demonstrates I’m a well-read yet free-thinking person, but I haven’t given this as much thought as I probably should. My mom pretty much forced me to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald when I was young, and I’d have to say my favorite writers are Joan Didion and Don DeLillo . . . writers who captured the gestalt of their time by factoring in the media and background noise we all live with.

Lindley:  Before you began your journey, you had worked at a variety of odd jobs and as a designer, an artist, and a teacher and studied at the Pratt Institute.  Aren’t you in law school now?

Reeves:  I just finished my first year and it was intense and horrible. As an educator, I had a difficult time participating in an academic environment that demands a loser due to the grading curve. It’s a mean system and I don’t feel like I learned very much. I went to law school because I wanted to understand how to make city government more accessible to people who are disengaged or simply ignored. After I got accepted to law school, however, this book thing happened, along with starting a new company called Civic Center, so I’m taking some time off to focus on these things. Ideally, I’d like to complete my degree on a part-time basis, and I’d love to see legal education become more interdisciplinary.

Lindley:  From the book, you mentioned law school in connection with helping some of the desperate people you saw on the road. It seems you have an activist side.

Reeves:  I realized that I’d driven around and seen enough from behind a windshield and I wanted to do something more substantial than simply write. In the last year, Candy Chang and I started a company called Civic Center that focuses on developing citywide conversations about reclaiming neglected buildings, promoting entrepreneurship, and alternative means of education and governance. And for these things, I wanted to have a law degree. 

We’re working in several cities and towns to come up with ways to bring residents into city planning and government processes in ways that are more engaging and transparent. I’m using my graphic design background and experience in education; I’m starting to achieve some of the things I wanted to do in an unexpected way, and New Orleans is a great and challenging place for this. We just bought an old iron shop and we’re using it for our office now.

Lindley:  There’s a strong feeling of grief and loss in your book, both from your personal experience and what you witness on your poignant journey across America.

Reeves:  When I was first writing, I had the idea of a political work. Then a couple of years went by and we had a new president. I removed a lot of the political names and themes because I didn’t want to date the book. When I did that, a lot of the situations were exactly the same with urban decline, things falling apart, and we’re still at war. I wrote in 2004 about all the yelling going on in our politics and it wasn’t outdated. It’s still going on. Are people becoming more polarized? Can it be undone? The national conversation is so toxic, so driven by the media’s need to keep us home alone, frightened, and watching commercials . . . the only sane thing is to tune out and focus on local issues.

Lindley:  You mention good experiences on the road and the kindness of strangers.  Did that surprise you?

Reeves:  People were incredibly nice to me.  At one point, I ran my car into a ditch and got completely stuck. It became an interesting social experiment to see how many people stopped to help and got sand sprayed all over them. An elderly couple, a man in a suit, and finally three kids with neck tattoos who tried to pull me out by chaining together our belts and connecting them to the latch on my trunk and the axle on their truck. (It didn't work.) This sort of thing happened a lot because I’m a moron who’s always running out of gas and getting stuck in mountains and muddy roads. Now when I drive around, I’ll stop and help somebody. 

Lindley:  Your description of your mother and the effect of her death on you is very touching.

Reeves:  After my mom passed away, I didn’t know where to go, so I drove through the country for six weeks. Then I finished the book. She always encouraged me to travel and see as many different places as possible. This book is dedicated to her.


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