Room to roam 

Brit mines legacy of itchy-footed America

Unflattering as it is to admit, my experience has shown that British people in America—be they tourists or ex-pats—invariably know more about this country than we do. Perhaps it’s part of some post-imperial obsession, or maybe the ex-colonials are simply interested in more than just lying back and thinking of Tony Blair. Who knows? In any event, leave it to a British writer, one Richard Grant, to sink his teeth into the heart of the American impulse to keep on trucking (or trekking, or tramping).

The romance of the open road has been wined and dined in everything from the novels of John Dos Passos and Jack Kerouac to The Muppet Movie. American Nomads is a thorough and engrossing exploration of this ethos in multiple forms: straight social history, profiles of contemporary wanderers and a few excessive smatterings of autobiography.

Grant’s obsession with the road is fueled by the fact that he’s been moving around the West for the last 15 years, with temporary home bases in Tucson, Ariz., and Moab, Utah. He argues that feeling at home while in motion and unsettled while settled is just a personality trait—an interesting assertion, though it doesn’t always square with his reflections on the disruptive toll the lifestyle has taken on his personal relationships.

The book kicks off with a contrast between European society, where the process of taming the land (and thus the nomadic impulse) was dealt with thousands of years ago, and the American West, where the dust has yet to fully settle. The process of becoming smitten with the road, Grant claims, is one of Europeans “being conquered by America, by the immensity of its geography and the nomadic cultures they found here.”

Thankfully, Grant does not study at the Kevin Costner Institute for Native Romanticization. Rather, he explores the interplay between cultures. True, European colonizers gave natives diseases and, uh, appropriated all their land, but they also introduced them to horsemanship, which tribes like the Comanches mastered far beyond European standards and used to forge an empire of their own.

Through historical accounts, particularly travel journals, Grant reveals how the nomadic freedom enjoyed by many tribes profoundly influenced Americans. The book includes profiles of Europeans who took so completely to peripatetic livelihoods that when they returned to “civilized” society, it had lost all appeal. One such apostate was 19th-century trapper Joe Walker. When asked why he preferred the rigorous mountain life to the city he replied, “Because white people are too damn mean.” Included are other examples of an overlooked fact: While many Europeans succeeded in “going native,” relatively few natives ever attempted to go Euro.

Grant shines brightest when embedded with his curious assortment of 21st-century nomads: a racist bum, an anchorite hippie herbalist who wonders why it’s so hard to find women willing to live in his desert cave, plus a whole convoy of truck drivers and freight-train riders.

In one memorable chapter, Grant hangs with a gaggle of rodeo cowboys whose lives are a haze of bull rides and meth trips. When their reserve of “whore money” runs dry, one cowboy pilfers a sex toy that I’m more than happy to leave unnamed, and shares it with four fellow cowboys in a roadside motel room.

Grant proves himself to be a careful reporter with an ability to find colorful subjects and connect their lives to historical precedent. He logs time with people many would cast off as insufferable freaks (righteous trustafarians, belligerent gutter punks), and while he doesn’t make them seem just like you and me, he explores their world in a thorough and respectful way.

And then there’s just hilarious cultural reporting, like the all-too-brief portrait of RV-bound retirees, aka “Geritol gypsies.” One single senior comments on how Viagra has created a class of graying mac daddies: “Teepee-creepers is what I call them. Some man you hardly know will come knocking on your door at night, shaking a jar of those pills, and expect you to jump right into bed with him. I send them packing and they get mad.”

American Nomads is not completely flawless. For instance, chapter headings more descriptive than mere numerals would have been a nice touch, as would an index. Also, Grant’s romantic autobiography blurts onto the pages with little reason except to raise the question: Why is he telling me this? These are forgivable offenses because even if one chapter gets slow, the next picks right up with a new roadside culture.

Perhaps it takes an outsider to write this kind of book, someone uninhibited by boundaries of race, class, and status that we’re often taught to regard as impenetrable. Someone capable of taking an interest in the wide-open space so many “natives” take as a given.

Grant’s writing is solid and his subjects provide vicarious road trips through the rarely enviable examples of their lives. Grant may not care why most people prefer to settle down—must be the steady stream of grocery circulars—but he brings so many worlds to life that it hardly matters. He also manages to be neither condescending, nor so ingratiating as to seem like some wannabe rogue. Even if he is British, he’s earned citizenship of the road, about which one hopes he’ll continue to write.

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