Monday, December 14, 2020

The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America - Tom Zoellner

All that country means all that driving. Horizon plus time: an exultant combination.” (Page 38) 

Tom Zoellner is a wanderer, a man who has spent countless hours wandering the backroads of America making note of what he discovers at each stop along the way. Zoellner has been wandering long enough now to have reached some conclusions about America and her people, and he shares those experiences (and conclusions) with the rest of us in The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, a collection of fourteen essays he’s written over the years. I do wish the book had been written more in the “road trip” style than it was, but that did not keep me from finding most of the essays fascinating. 

It was in the collection’s third essay, “Drive,” that I confirmed that Tom Zoellner is a man who sees being on the open road — with no real destination in mind — exactly how I’ve viewed it all my life:

Into the car and away — away to the next valley over the ridge, away to the next town, the next exit, the unknown lump of color around the turn in the road just out of sight, leading and receding. Into the car, into the country. Here is where I feel most at ease and have since the age of majority: propped upright and relaxed at the wheel, the country spinning along outside the windows.”

There is little I love more than the spell of motorized land journey, a languorous day, a vague forward-looking destination in mind and a full tank of gas. If there is an opportunity to fly, I will not take it…” (Page 37)

I so totally identify with those two little paragraphs that I could have written them myself — and that glorious feeling is one of the main things that 2020’s pandemic has stolen from the rest of us for way too long. 

Other essays in the book include mini-histories of the State of Nevada and Las Vegas, the Mormon faith and its sacred sites that can be found all over America, the corrupt towns that spring up in the shadow of places like St. Louis, and the exploitation of America’s indigenous tribes by New England’s earliest settlers. Another of the more road-trip-like essays recounts Zoellner’s attempt to set foot on the point of highest elevation in all 48 contiguous states, a feat he is remarkably close to having achieved.

The National Road, however, is not a particularly optimistic book at all when it comes to the changes Zoellner has observed over the years. He is correctly dismayed by the divisions he sees along the lines of politics, religion, and economic opportunities — divisions that run so deeply that they are evident these days to far more casual observers than Zoellner. Something is terribly wrong when a country so casually “writes off” entire portions of the country as not worth saving. To his credit, the author recognizes that those places are “primarily rural” and located “in politically conservative regions.” When so many Americans are “shut out from their own country,” bad things happen. And they don’t happen only in the exclusion zones. 

Bottom Line: Tom Zoellner has learned much from all those hours behind the wheel, and what he has to say about America in The National Road needs to be heard, especially by those who may be able to do something about the spread of the country’s “exclusion zones.” I suspect, however, that because the political splits run so deeply now, those are the people least likely to get the message. 

Tom Zoellner


  1. This book sounds interesting...but the thought of taking a road trip like this is what really appeals to me. :D

    1. Me, too. I am SO ready to hit the road that it's all I think about some days. The irony is that with all this free time, I could be planning the next trip...but the biggest part of the fun for me comes from WANDERING the roads.

  2. Road trips. Feels almost like my nostalgia about riding trains. One trip I'd really like to take is Old Highway 80 all the way to Tybee Island. It once crossed the country from San Diego, California to Savannah, Georgia--from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

    1. I've ridden trains in Europe quite a lot, but never in this country, Jen, and I've always wondered what it would be like to go across several states that way. The perfect train trip for me would be one of those open-ended kind of tickets that allowed you to jump off and on the train when you want set schedule and no required end-destination.

      The trip you describe sounds interesting. That's not a link I'm familiar with at all.

  3. Your "bottom line" is, as the Brits say "spot on".
    My road trips when the virus is over will be around my own state. Just little day trips to the many towns I've not visited or heard of.
    I did enjoy our trip from San Antone to Freer years ago!

    1. I've done a couple of day trips since March, but they don't quite do it for me. I'm not overly familiar with South Texas, but trips down there take at least a couple of days, so I can't do even those yet.

      I think I've seen where it is farther from Houston to El Paso, TX, than it is from Houston to Chicago...and that kind of blows my mind.