In July, Holt will publish the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s latest work of nonfiction, The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean, which documents his four-month journey, via Airstream trailer, from the tip of the Florida Keys to the northernmost point in Alaska. We asked Caputo what he learned along the way.
At your trip’s outset, you posed the question, “What holds America together?” What did you discover?
Most of the [stories] we discovered were fairly original: a farmwoman from Missouri, for example, told us that she thought the belief that we have a lot in common holds us together—even if it’s not really true. In her mind, that perception was more important than the reality, and [it] may even become reality.
Was there one stop on your journey—one pocket of American culture—that surprised you most?
I’m a Midwesterner by birth, and when I traveled there, when I was young, most of the small towns were thriving, vibrant places. Now, as agriculture has become corporatized, a lot of the people who used to live on the small family farms have moved away, and in Western Nebraska and Kansas, the population density meets the standard for frontier—there are less people per square mile [now] than in 1890. It was a melancholy experience.
Do you think others will use your book as a travel guide?
The book is a narrative, written more in the nature of [John Steinbeck’s] Travels with Charley, [William Least Heat-Moon’s] Blue Highways, or some of Ian Frazier’s books. There may be somebody—just as there have been people who have been inspired to follow Steinbeck’s route—who want to retrace my steps, but [the book] doesn’t have the sites or destinations that most people would require. I think it would be a fine book to take along with you on your own journey, but as a travel guide, I’d classify it as useless.