Travesía americana: De San Francisco a Nueva York por Carretera
(American Journey: From San Francisco to New York by Highway)
nausícaä, 2012, pg 118
Manuel Moyano is a Spanish novelist and short story writer who drove across the United States during the late summer of 2013 with his wife and two teenage children. It was the journey a non journalist makes moving from one American icon to the next, soaking in the best and worst of America, its fast food, its national parks, all the while looking for the America seen in so many films and TV shows. Moyano has not written a journalist’s account of modern America, nor has he engaged in some sort of stunt. He has simple kept a detailed record of a trip across the United States that on the face of it is quite average, but he is an honest commentator and what he describes is not just the common place experiences of driving through suburbs and strip malls, but what he expected—wanted—to see. Given his outsider status, too, he brings a fresh eyes to what an American might already think is common place.
They start out from San Fransisco and in the first few pages you have the general flow of the book. In one part they go to Fisherman’s and have a nice day there. Following that they go to rent a car where Moyano is disappointed to learn that the big cars he’s seen in so many movies, TV shows and other pieces of America’s cultural detritus that’s been spread around the world are no longer that popular and most cars driven in America are smaller. Curiously, he notes that the rental car agency was very pushy about tire insurance, something I’ve never heard of. This led the Moyanos to fear American roads, which, naturally, must be terrible if tire insurance is required. The fear of blowouts would return more than a few times and while a justified fear in the middle of the Rockies or the Great Plains seems a little funny. Also rather humorous was his instance on telling the rental agent he didn’t know how to drive an automatic (automatics are less common in Spain).
A constant source of amazement were the laws about alcohol. He couldn’t understand why a state park, Hurst Castle, would not sell beer. Nor did he understand why on the Hopi reservation he could not buy beer. His understanding of Native American history was a little lacking here and did not understand why in a place without alcohol, he could find a drunk on the streets at 11 am. It was one of his few misses when observing the US. He quickly noticed that in their trip through Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming they had not seen an African American until Rapid City, South Dakota.
When talking of patriotism he is probably the most aware. He spends several lines describing the patriotic aspects of a Wallmart in Idaho Falls. And in Washington DC he sees a collection of veterans from different wars and writes:
Por todas partes pululaban cientos de veteranos de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y de guerreras mas recientes. Habían acudido allí en grupo, algunos en compañía de sus familiares procedentes de estados como Iowa, Georgia o Illinois. La mayoría eran de edad muy avanzada, y muchos se desplazaban en sillas de ruedas. Tal vez necesitaran darse un baño de patriotismo para convencerse a si mismos de que merecía la pena haber matado y haber arriesgado la vida en nombre de su país.
There were hundreds of veterans from the Second World War and more recent wars wandering around everywhere. They had come in a group, some with family members, from states like Iowa, Georgia or Illinois. The majority of them were very old and many were in wheel chairs. Perhaps they needed to bathe in patriotism to convince themselves that it was worth while to kill and risk their lives in the name of their country.
(Emphasis mine) I believe what he stumbled on was an Honor Flight. Whoever was sponsoring it, it is strong stuff to stay in a country where the local Wallmart has pictures of all the soldiers from a given county. I’m not sure I agree that the soldiers needed a bath of patriotism, but I do think the civilians sponsoring it seem to. It also reflects an author who comes from a county where this kind of patriotism has had a very dark past.
On the charming side, though, is his literary pilgrimages. He goes in search of London, Hemingway, and other writers, but especially H.P. Lovecraft. He goes so far as knocking of the door of Lovecraft’s last home, which is in private hands. Much to his surprise the owner allows him to look around the house and talks to him for some time. It is the highlight of his journey into America to see part of his literary hero’s life.
Ultimately, Travesía is an interesting read. Occasionally, his descriptions of the towns he passes through feel perfunctory, more along the lines of a chamber of commerce description. Not that it isn’t interesting, but the book’s real fun is in the way he lives American culture. He has no fixer to put him with locals of interest. He travels like the rest of us, going from hotel to hotel, eating breakfasts of hotel carbs, and driving through strange cities looking for a place to say or a place to eat. Even in 2010 he could, I suppose, have had a smart phone to help navigate, but Moyano avoids that trap and is wonderfully at the mercy of what one finds. You will not find the dark underbelly of America here, just a journey through common place that is easy to miss.