While walking along the shores of Barter Island, Alaska, in 1997, Philip Caputo was struck by the notion that everyone—from children of the Alaskan Inupiat to Cuban immigrants in Florida—"pledged allegiance to the same flag." The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean is Caputo's attempt, 14 years later, to investigate the ways in which U.S. citizens are—or aren't—united. Spurred by the death of his father, and facing his own 70th birthday, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, hits the road to talk with ordinary people at a time when he feels the nation is most divided. Whether it is more divided now than ever is arguable (the Civil War, anyone?), but as Caputo sees it, the speed of misinformation and hate from the internet have exacerbated the battle fatigue and aggravation Americans feel toward Wall Street and K Street. If these are the examples of division, he wonders, where is the glue?
Caputo is not immune to the romance of the open road despite the grit of his question, and he plays off that. It's this romantic tone that keeps the book from falling too far into academic social studies. As a means for getting a full experience, Caputo is determined not to stay in hotels or use the interstate, and he purchases a Toyota Tundra and an Airstream Trailer, naming them "Gray Hawk" and "Nomadica" respectively. He reminisces fondly about driving through Wisconsin in the summer with his father, a traveling machinist for a canning company. With boyish glee, he maps his journey using The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto, as his guide. The bucolic memories of Caputo's boyhood travels are thwarted by the practical, which provides plenty of humorous moments. For instance, his initial plan is to travel alone accompanied by his two English setters. After realizing that he can't do his work and dog wrangle, he recruits his wife, Leslie, on the journey. "Gray Hawk" and "Nomadica" are renamed "Fred" and "Ethel," and Caputo's Kerouac adventure suddenly becomes more like Two for the Road.
The meat of the book showcases a cast of mostly randomly chosen interviewees who attempt to answer Caputo's question. Very few answers are the same, of course, but the most common is first stated by Dean Cannon, the 2010-2012 Republican Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Cannon contends that people are not angry, but frightened by perceived threats to their liberty and personal freedoms. "The gravest threat to liberty is too strong a central government," Cannon tells Caputo.
The perception of personal freedom is a pervading theme for Caputo's subjects. Like a good journalist, Caputo is critical here, marveling that people blame the government and not big business. In an extremely large parenthetical he writes, "One of the things we learned on the trip was that the age of instant communication has not slowed but accelerated the spread of myth and rumor." As an antidote, he spends a great deal of time fact-checking many of the tales he is told.
Montana plays a strong role in Caputo's travels. He and Leslie visit Little Big Horn Battlefield and spend a weekend at a dude ranch in Livingston. These are the moments when the book feels obvious and cliché—unaware of a Montana outside of the stereotype. More than anything, it's the book's broad study that inherently keeps Caputo from capturing the cultural quirks or nuanced politics of the state (and, perhaps, other states).
Caputo regains his footing, however, via Highway 12, when he encounters the first megaload shipment near Lolo Hot Springs. Its passage is temporarily stalled by a federal judge, and Caputo investigates the truck as it sits at the campground, two security guards protecting it from the threat of protestors. Several miles up Fish Creek Road he is delighted to discover the Round River Rendezvous, the annual gathering of the Northern Rockies Rising Tide. The group has come together to decide how best to protest the megaload. (That protest would end up taking place at the state capitol, six people linking themselves with PVC pipe to symbolize the pipeline.) And Caputo takes the opportunity to interview them, with some interesting results. He talks to Nick Stocks, media representative for the organization, whose philosophies are remarkably similar to the Florida legislator's. "Maybe we need less government," Stocks says. "Maybe we need more decision-making power on the local level as opposed to on a federal level."
For all his questioning, Caputo never offers a definitive answer. In the end, he's written a road trip book placed in an existential landscape. The young horse wrangler who escaped the streets of Detroit to work on the dude ranch in Livingston posits that we need conflict in order to "grow as a nation." A Lakota shaman in South Dakota describes the country as "a blanket of color, all sewn in the shape of the U.S." to answer what unites the country. Both seem right. With each interview and misadventure, Caputo builds an illustrated guide to individual freedom—one that would likely look different every time he took the journey.