What it's Really Like to Take an Airstream Road Trip Across the Country
One week before my fiancée and I threw our lives into a 16-foot camper trailer and embarked on a yearlong tour of the Lower 48, I picked up a copy of The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean by Philip Caputo. A friend had recommended Caputo's work, not because Caputo had completed a similar cross-country journey of his own, but because we were heading straight to Arizona, and I have a thing for reading authors in their home states.
Caputo is perhaps best known for A Rumor of War, his 1977 Vietnam War memoir. But it wasn't until a last-minute run to Barnes & Noble that The Longest Road even hit my radar. "He has that war book," the sales clerk told me. "But I loved his road book. My husband and I listened to the whole thing on audiobook. We've been looking for used Airstreams ever since."
Barely one week later, I found myself in Patagonia, Arizona, sipping tequila with Caputo—also a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of eight novels—in a dimly lit bar called the Wagon Wheel Saloon, talking about his work, his travels and that "sense of discovery" on the road.
You could spend your winters anywhere. How did you end up in Patagonia, Arizona, a town of just 900 people?
A good friend of mine who is also a fairly well known novelist, Jim Harrison—he and I used to hunt together up in Michigan, where he's originally from. I was up there with him one time and I told him that we live in Connecticut part of the year and that I was sick of New England winters. So he told me about this place, and I realized that way back in 1962, I'd hitchhiked right through this town, but I probably didn't pay any attention at the time and was half asleep in some guy's car. I had dropped out of college for a while. I worked as a brakeman on a railroad, and with the money from that I took off on this hitchhiking journey through New Orleans, into Mexico, almost to Guatemala, and back.
Anyway, Jim said Patagonia was great, that there was great quail shooting here, and horseback riding, hundreds of thousands of acres of open, public land. And that the climate is generally pretty good. So we came down and started renting places all around here. We rented guesthouses on ranches, and we rented cottages in town. And then in 2003 or 2004 we bought that little house, and that's kind of how I ended up here.
I find this place very congenial. It's a small town, but it's a really interesting town. You find people here from walks of life you'd never think would fetch up in an old Arizona cow-and-mining town.
You've written about a lot of very sobering topics, the Vietnam War just one of them. Was it jarring to make an about-face and write something more upbeat?
To write a relatively light-hearted travel book was actually quite pleasurable. My agent represents some of these mega bestsellers, like David Baldacci and people like that, and I'd say, "I hear Baldacci sold a million copies and bought five mansions. Jesus Christ! Can't I get sort of close to that?" And he'd say, "No, you're way too dark and somber and all that."
You settled fairly quickly on the idea of pulling an Airstream across the country. Why an Airstream as opposed to any other kind of travel trailer?
To me, it is the most iconic. They've been around since the 1930s, and they're beautiful to look at. They've got a sleek, simple design. The roundedness of them, the silver—they don't look like these hideous new RVs, these things that are 100-feet long. I think I described these RVs in the book as "condominiums on wheels." I don't even see the point of that. You're basically dragging your house with you.
What practical challenges did the Airstream pose?
As you progress in The Longest Road, you'll see all of these goofy catastrophes. In some national or state park somewhere, I had to drain the holding tank into a bucket. It had become clogged and I unclogged it, or something like that. I had this big five-gallon bucket, and I suddenly realized, what do I do, literally, with all of this shit in the bucket? There was nowhere to dump it. So I snuck off at night into the woods and dug this hole and dumped it in there and covered it up.
There was also an overhead vent you could push up, and that would get the heat out. This Airstream went back to the pre-air conditioning days. That vent just blew off one day, and I had to go retrieve it and figure out a way to get it back on, because if it rained it would have just flooded the entire thing.
And the propane gas alarm was constantly going off. If I had owned it I would have torn it out. It would go off for no reason at all. I'd shut everything off. Take the batteries out. Pull the AC plug and whatnot. The nozzle for the propane stove got clogged with road dust, and I had to figure out how to blow that out. Flat tires. All of those things. I was learning how to fix these things on the fly. That old saying is true: necessity is the mother of invention.
Whenever possible, you avoided the interstate system on your trip, choosing back roads and highways instead. What were some of the most notable stretches on your trip?
The Natchez Trace is just beautiful. I'm sorry we only drove half of it. You should drive the whole thing, all 450 miles or whatever it is. US-12 out of Missoula, Montana, going through Idaho is a great, great road. The Dalton up in Alaska—I call it the Oregon Trail of modern times. I just love that road. And the Alaska Highway is a magical road to drive. It really is. There's a stretch of US-50, out in Nevada and Utah, called the loneliest road in America. Two hundred and sixty-five miles of nothing. That's the old Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental highway ever built. It's an example of how back in the day, instead of talking about doing big things, we actually did them. In 1911, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation started to build the Lincoln Highway, 3,400 miles from Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and finished it in two years. Can you imagine that happening today? Fuck no.
You had originally planned to make a solo journey from Key West to the Arctic Ocean, but later acquiesced and allowed your wife, Leslie, to join in. How did that decision affect the outcome of your trip?
Part of me does wish it had been a solo trip, because when you're with your wife—and your dogs, but especially your wife—no matter what you do there's a restraint on you of some kind. And I think if I'd been alone I would have probably found weirder places and weirder situations and maybe even gotten myself into trouble of some kind that I think would have been more interesting. On the other hand, when I think about the length of this trip—and altogether I interviewed 80 people—I could have never done that without her. I would have been too exhausted. A lot of times Leslie would make great suggestions, too. She's the one who convinced me I should interview this guy Ansel Woodenknife.
We were in this restaurant in South Dakota, and we had an Indian Taco. I remember asking the guy at the restaurant what the hell an Indian taco is, and he said, "Ansel Woodenknife invented these. He's a Lakota who was on the Food Channel." I was exhausted. I'd been driving and driving and watching the dogs. And Leslie said, "Jesus Christ! A Lakota Indian on the Food Channel? Come on! Wake up!"
What makes for a great road-trip book?
With a road-trip book you want to find the magic of discovery: a landscape you've never seen, people you never thought you'd meet. That really makes for a better book. But you know what makes these travel books highly successful? Like Cheryl Strayed's Wild, for example? What made hers so popular—and Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, too—is the story of transformation, a redemption of some sort. Your life has fallen to pieces, and somehow it all gets put back together, or at least you can see where it's heading. I didn't do that. In fact, my editor at Holt said "Phil, you know what's missing from this? How did this change you?" It didn't change me at all. The guy who started off is the guy who finished. I said, "I'm too old for that kind of redemptive journey."
Would you recommend a similar trip to someone else?
In a heartbeat. But on the negative side, I would recommend against doing it in an RV, or what is now known as an RV: these big bus-sized things with goofy logos and paint jobs and flat-screen TVs and all that other shit. You want to become integrated as much as you can with your environment, and those things tend to alienate you from your environment. Instead of reading or hanging around or going to a bar, you're going to sit in that damn thing and watch your flat screen TV, just like you would at home. So my main advice is to realize you're not at home, and don't act like you're at home.
In the The Longest Road, you write, "To make such an epic road trip [...] would be to recapture the enchantment of youth." Did you find that enchantment?
I did find it, and I should have expressed more of it in the book than I did. The thing I was trying to recapture was what I felt on that hitchhiking trip I took in college. I lived hard on that trip, hopped trains, slept in gas stations and on roadsides. I was like a homeless person—and I loved it. You can do that when you're 19 years old. That sense of discovery—not only because I was older, but because I'd been to 50 countries since then—wasn't quite there as much as I wanted it to be. When you hit a certain age—John Updike talked about this—there's a constant, low-grade melancholy in your soul. And every now and then on this trip, for days on end, that would just lift. And I'd say, well, where are we going today? And Leslie and I would make it up.