Dalton Delan| The Unspin Room: Our twin freedoms of writing and the road

WESTPORT, Conn.— August in America, and according to a survey by AAA, 80 percent of us planned a road trip this summer. It's a tradition as old as the nation. So is writing about it. As Edna St. Vincent Millay, no stranger to a poet's wanderlust, wrote in "Travel" in 1921: "There isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going."

Nearly a century earlier, shortly after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laid its first rails, the French government dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to study the U.S. prison system. From these travels, he pronounced on our fledgling democracy: "America is great because she is good " More on this later.

Not long after, a 29-year-old Englishman, Charles Dickens, stepped off the RMS Brittania to observe life both politic and impolitic on the other side of the Pond. The great novelist paid a call on President John Tyler, and came away in his "American Notes" with the droll observation: "He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might, being at war with everybody."

While these two esteemed early travelers sharpened their quills on the nation's key figures and higher aspirations, others sought out the heart of the country in its hinterlands and everyday people. Far from the maddening crowd of politics, Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in the 1850s in a cabin he built on the property of fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here, by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote of his escape from "over-civilization," setting the media antipodes spinning between the American wild and the great cities springing up. I had the chance to work on deciphering Thoreau's handwritten journals at university, and his heartfelt communing with nature struck a resonant chord.

Outbound from NYC

The search for an America as raw as a clam and rough around the edges persisted well into the 20th century, with many less extreme than Thoreau, but nevertheless following rails or roads outbound from the publishing epicenter of New York City. Newspaper readers of the Scripps-Howard syndicate eagerly awaited the roving reports of Ernie Pyle that mined Dickensian caricature — what he called "the peaks and the valleys" — in the depths of the Depression, a decade before his better known wartime portraiture of G.I. Joes.

Closer to home, Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker didn't venture far from Manhattan, limning the denizens of its urban seaside and opining: "When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island." Perhaps he brought along as well Millay's "Recuerdo," with its wistful paean: "We were very tired, we were very merry — We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry."

At the same time that Mitchell was riding the Staten Island Ferry, Jack Kerouac was holed up in a nearby apartment at 454 West 20th Street, pounding away in a Benzedrine-fueled frenzy on a jury-rigged 120-foot scroll of paper he had taped together and fed with inky fingers through his trusty Hermes typewriter. The resulting "On the Road" draws on his cross-country trips with ex-felon Neal Cassady, immortalized as Dean Moriarty. A typical day recounted in this seminal work of Beat literature finds Kerouac, aka Sal Paradise, "halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future."

Steinbeck's vision

Several years later, an ailing John Steinbeck hit the road from Long Island on an elegiac 10,000-mile journey across the continent. With him was his standard poodle in a GMC truck fitted out as a camper named Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. The resulting "Travels with Charley: In Search of America" rode to the top of the non-fiction bestseller list, though like Mitchell and his waterfront denizens it was likely more fiction than non. Of the Americans he met, Steinbeck wrote: "I saw in their eyes a burning desire to go, to move, to get underway, anyplace, away from any Here."

The lure to traverse and document America's nearly 3.8 million square miles has drawn ever more chroniclers in every medium. For Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, it was his upbringing in the iron ore country of northern Minnesota that shaped him, as he told the London Times in 2009: "The streams, the forest, the vast emptiness. The land created me."

So here we are again, sandwiches in our pockets, hitting the highways, rails and trails, going somewhere or nowhere much, still on the road.

De Tocqueville wrote further, considering the fate of our democracy: " If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great." At whatever altitude we choose, freedom to write and freedom of the road are our democratic inheritance, riders and writers all. I can hear Dickens humming: Tippicanoe and Tyler too.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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