‘The Nationwide Highway’ Takes Readers On A Journey By way of Americana : NPR
The National Road: Broadcasts from a Changing America, by Tom Zoellner Counterpoint Hide caption
Last January, I attended a writing residency in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I was five miles from Christ of the Ozarks, a 340-ton statue erected in 1966 by Gerald LK Smith who was the organizer of populist demagogue Huey Long. Tom Zoellner’s new collection of essays, The National Road, examines this type of Americana, peering into corners that few of us can see.
Zoellner teaches at Chapman and Dartmouth Colleges, is the policy editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the author and co-author of seven previous books. To say he has traveled far is to say cheetahs run fast. Zöllner has zigzagged tens of thousands of kilometers across the continent with a small tent, backpack and hiking boots. His book is a fascinating exploration of American places and subjects; Metaphors for our country.
Zöllner visits Spillville, Iowa, where the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák spent the summer of 1893 and wrote his famous Symphony No. 9 from the New World. Dvořák’s Bohemian compatriots were “the poorest of the poor” from Písek, Tábor and Budějovice. Forty years later in Iowa, they were “very well”.
Today, Spillville residents are concerned about immigration – for or against it. Zöllner has a beer with a supervisor at a horse trailer manufacturer who notes, “We’re selfish and stuck … The American dream is eroding and it’s scary.”
In the title chapter, Zöllner states that President Thomas Jefferson approved the construction of a freeway in 1806. Where roads run, writes customs officer, trade follows. He is traveling on a “state street of dollar stores,” touching the opioid epidemic and witnessing the economic deterioration in American small towns. Nice, California may be pronounced like the city on the French Riviera, but at this past resort, Dollar General is the place to go for “Dish Soap, Tuna, Bread and Coors Light”. Zöllner investigates the rise and fall of Dollar General’s predecessors: family-owned department stores; Grocery chains like A&P; and five and dimes – Woolworth and offspring.
A chapter titled “The Whole Tire of the World” is Zöllner’s quest to climb the highest point in each of the 50 states for reasons he “can’t really explain”. As a junior reporter in Cheyenne, Wy., He drives a hundred miles to the highest point in Nebraska and finds a marker where Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming meet at right angles. This “geometric curiosity” strikes him; He realizes that Nebraska is purely coincidental: “A trans-Mississippi-free constitution of Congress as a failed compromise to end the civil war.”
Zöllner loses his nerve and doesn’t quite make it to the top of Oregon’s Mount Hood, but ends the harrowing journey up Borah Peak in Idaho. He visits Louisiana’s Driskill Mountain, “a red-earth hill in a private logging area in the pine forests.”
Documenting his manic travels carries the risk that Zöllner will portray himself as America’s everyone – part cowboy, part Johnny Appleseed. He avoids this fate with insightful and well-crafted prose and the occasional introspection, including questioning his own arrogance. “Trying to ‘write’ the world tries … to own the world: a bit like the original sin of wanting the knowledge of God.”
Aside from the joy of sharing your discoveries from an armchair, readers are offered nuggets of wisdom:
“The summit is not yours. Neither is romantic love, the achievement, the apartment, nor your own life. These possessions are not possessions – they pass you just like water flowing through your fingers …”
On Cape Cod, customs officers do not bypass white men’s betrayals of their local neighbors. He follows the links between the arrival of outsiders at the Cape and climate change. “Welcome to Dirtytown” brings us to Ferguson by providing background information on the “Toxic Little Towns of St. Louis County”.
Searchlight offers a fascinating history of the Nevada gambling industry – founded by Angeleno Thomas Hull, who invested in Nevada real estate after the 1938 police cleanup of roulette, prostitution and corruption. Zöllner’s description of the 1950s A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert is reminiscent of essayist Joni Tevi’s great collection The World Is On Fire, in which these A-bomb tests are placed in context and described as family entertainment for the locals will.
Woody Guthrie could have written the soundtrack for The National Road. As I read it, I remembered an encouraging anecdote from the father of a friend who grew up in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, in the 1930s and 40s. When asked if we would get through today’s national divisions, he nodded yes: “When I was a boy, children from the Church of Sweden were forbidden to meet children from the Church of Norway. We managed to get over it . “
Zöllner summarizes America as “a land of destruction and reinvention, with the scythe on the table next to the blueprint … America is a culture of white … this path of constant change is our blotchy and beautiful heritage.”
The national road is an exciting journey that proves its point of view.
Martha Anne Toll has just worked for the Butler Family Fund, a philanthropy for social justice, for 26 years. She won the Petrichor Prize 2020 for finely crafted fiction and her novel Drei Musen will be published in 2022.