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Ethan Casey

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Why I'm Driving Around America

Posted: 06/12/2012 7:00 am

The short answer is that it's because I'd rather not fly. I've been flying around America all too much the past five or six years and, while it has allowed me to parachute into many fascinating communities and stories, ultimately the frustrations outweigh the gains, if not in business terms then in writerly terms. Which is to say, in terms of grasping and understanding the vast and various subject. America cannot be understood piecemeal, and today's America is crying out for a writer who will connect the dots.

That's what I'll be attempting in my three-month road trip this fall and in the account of it that I'm planning, to be titled Home Free: An American Road Trip. I'm making the trip and writing the book because I'm an American writer and citizen, all the unconnected dots out there around the American landscape are a goad to me - the way a bunch of unherded sheep might goad a sheepdog - and I'm taking the initiative to do what I can, in the hope of making myself useful.

One resource I have for understanding today's and tomorrow's America is the years I've spent traveling and living in, and writing about, countries like Pakistan and Haiti. My parents live in Colorado Springs, where city services are suffering from budget cuts. My father, who took me to Haiti for the first time in 1982 when I was 16 years old - it's a long story, which I tell in my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti - jokes that soon we'll be seeing guys at intersections in Colorado Springs filling in potholes with shovels, then tapping on windshields asking for donations, just like in Port-au-Prince. The joke is sort of funny, until you realize just how plausible it is.

We Americans are long accustomed to considering ourselves special, but we're actually not. Notwithstanding superficial differences of politics, culture, and national history, we're just like everybody else - which is to say that we're susceptible to the vagaries and foibles of human nature. If we Americans opt to embrace our likeness to other societies with humility, there's not only a lot we can learn, but also comfort we can take: insisting on and enforcing our supposed specialness costs us a lot in energy and effort.

As a writer who comes from the heart of mainstream, middle-class American society, who has lived in and written about the "Third World" for most of two decades, and who has now returned, I see America as connected to, and part of, the wider world. This awareness will help me understand this country's current and coming political, economic, and social upheavals, as I watch them continue unfolding while driving around America this fall.

My itinerary is at once straightforward - clockwise around the continental United States, starting and ending in Seattle, where I live - and ambitious: I plan to visit every region of the country between early September and mid-December. A number of people have already offered me free advice to the effect that I'll be trying to cover a lot of ground in a short time. My reply is: I know that. Every trip, and every writing project, is inevitably provisional, incomplete, and contingent. There's no way in any case that I, or any single writer, could say everything there is to say about today's America. My wife and in-laws would appreciate my making it home for Christmas. And, in some ways, three months spent mostly alone in a car is quite a long time.

I'm putting a lot of preliminary work into multiple drafts of a planning document. The current (sixth) draft is 31 pages and replete with driving times, contact names and numbers, books to read (City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis) and reread (A.B. Guthrie, Jr.'s classic Western novel The Big Sky), documentaries to watch (Spike Lee's two four-hour films on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath), notes to self on topics and themes, and stray phrases and sentences that have a nice ring to them and might end up in the book.

I've already tentatively titled some chapters, such as "Wisconsin: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?" That chapter will occur early in the book, for reasons at once geographic, topical, and personal: I grew up in Oconomowoc, one of the most charmingly and painfully Rockwellian of Midwestern small towns, near the western edge of Waukesha County. Waukesha County is suburban (and exurban) to the west of Milwaukee and has been in the eye of Wisconsin's recent political storms. I also plan to give significant attention to Detroit (readers of Bearing the Bruise know that Detroit was formative for me when I lived there in 1991-92), New Hampshire and Boston, Miami (where American, Cuban, and Haitian stories overlap, sometimes explosively and always tellingly), New Orleans, Houston, and Oakland. I'll be lingering in some locations for specific personal or topical reasons - for example Quitman, Texas, hometown of my grandmother and of Sissy Spacek, and Tucson, to visit the Safeway where Jared Loughner killed six people and almost killed U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, 2011.

As the author of two books of similarly personal reporting, or topical travel writing, on Pakistan, I've been privileged in recent years to get to know my own country anew through speaking engagements and friendships among Pakistani-Americans from coast to coast. I've come to know Pakistani-Americans as an exemplary (in both senses) American immigrant community, and it has been eye-opening and encouraging to me, as someone whose ancestors came here in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Germany, and France, to rediscover today's America as a country of immigrants - which is to say as a much more interesting country than I knew it to be when I was growing up or when I left it in 1993 to live in Asia. I'm looking forward to visiting Pakistani friends old and new, and to hearing and including in the book their American stories, along my route this fall.

So, both out of long habit and inclination and because I know that I can't trust "the media" to do it for me, I will be seeing America for myself this fall, where the rubber meets the road. I will of course be blogging while I travel, I hope as often as weekly, and accepting any opportunities I'm offered to promote this project through other writing, speaking, or interviews. But I'm old-fashioned enough still to believe that its fullest and most enduring, and most meaningful, expression will be in the form of a full-length printed book. America is a big, messy and controversial subject, and it cries out not for snippets of opinion and armchair analysis, but for long-form treatment: connecting the dots.

In some ways Home Free will be a book of its moment, produced very quickly: I intend to write it over the winter and spring of 2013 for publication in the fall, a year after the trip itself. But, as a book, it will attempt much more than any tweet could ever accomplish, and my aspiration is for it to remain readable with pleasure and profit twenty or more years from now. I want to catch history on the fly and, to the extent possible, preserve this historical moment as in amber. I want people to read Home Free in 2013 and later and to say, "Yes, that's what it was like as America was going through the election and so much else during the autumn of 2012."

Your pre-purchase of Home Free: An American Road Trip supports the project, so order your copy today for $19.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and it will be sent to you when the book is published in fall 2013:

 

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ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans.

 

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