Friday, August 17, 2007

'A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow': An American Hitchhiking Odyssey

Tim Brookes had his life changed forever in 1973 when, as a young Oxford student, he met an American girl from Iowa who personified all of the traits that he saw as the best that America had to offer. So infatuated was he with the girl and what she represented to him, that he came to New York City that summer with $90 worth of traveler’s checks and the determination to hitchhike across the country and back to an Ontario tobacco farm where he had a summer job waiting. Almost as an afterthought, Brookes applied for a position at the University of Vermont and, against all odds, was eventually offered a position at the university that he still held in 1998 when he decided to relive his 1973 hitchhiking adventure.

Twenty-five years after that first trip, Brookes found that he was not exactly living the dream that he saw for himself back in 1973. He looked in the mirror and saw a twice-divorced middle-aged man who had been working hard for more than a decade to be a good husband and father in his third try at marriage. He was “trudging grimly through the valley of the shadow of debt,” had a mortgage and credit card debt, was paying child support, and was working 50-60 hours every week just to stay even. In other words, he was living an existence that typifies the one that most of us know only too well.

Brookes, even in the days prior to September 11, 2001, had the feeling that America had changed in ways that directly impacted the nature of its citizens in a negative way. So, with financial backing from National Geographic magazine, he devised a plan to judge for himself how much Americans had changed in the last twenty-five years. (The magazine also provided a photographer who traveled sometimes ahead of Brookes and sometimes behind him, although very few of his photographs are actually used in the book.)

Brookes did make it all the way to the West Coast and back to his Vermont home, just as he had planned to do. And along the way, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the abundance of kindness from strangers that he had encountered on his first trip was not a thing of the past. The book, in fact, is filled with stories of people who go out of their way to help Brookes just when he most needed the kind of help they had to offer.

But A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow is not quite the adventure that I expected to read when I first picked it up because, for his second trip across the U.S. as a hitchhiker, Brookes makes so many concessions to his age and financial backing that the trip more resembles a controlled experiment than it does a trip left to chance. He travels with a cell phone by which he can almost always contact his photographer to meet him when he has the urge to cover ground more quickly for a day or two. And he has enough cash or credit this time to pamper himself with a motel when his body demands a break or to ride the bus when spots the right connections.

Despite that type of thing (and Brookes, to his credit, makes the concessions an integral part of his story), I did enjoy learning about the people and places that Brookes came to know while crossing the country. And, frankly, being of a similar age, I can sympathize with the knee problems that he described and am impressed that he had the courage to tackle the trip at all.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. Sounds like an interesting tale, and good for him for turning those concessions into a part of the story rather than trying to sweep them under the rug.

  2. His aches and pains became a central part of his story, Heather, when he was contrasting his first trip to the one that he was making 25 years later. If you read the book, be sure to let me know what you thought of it.

  3. Did he go to Bryce Canyon in Utah? It's been called "a hell of a place to lose a cow."

  4. SFP, that's exactly where the title of the book comes from...covered in Chapter 13 is his visit to Bryce Canyon.