Friday, August 19, 2011

Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America by Bill Barich

Bill Barich had spent eight years living in Ireland when he came across a used copy of Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. He remembered how impressed he had been with the book as a youth and how it contributed to his hippy days in California. Being a writer, he soon felt the call for a road trip to rekindle the spirit of his youth and reconnect with his homeland. And, of course, there would be a book, which has turned out to be Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America.

Barich chose, however, not to recreate Steinbeck's trip in detail. He would start from the East Coast and end on the West Coast, but the actual cities and highways would differ. Like Steinbeck, he would try to stick to the backroads and small towns as much as possible, but he did not have the unlimited time that the highly successful Steinbeck had. He could not afford a camper, either. And most importantly, he would not take a dog, despite the protests from friends that it was essential.

In the six weeks that Barich was on the road he did notice many dogs and sometimes in his loneliness wished that he had one. Not everything went well. Food and accommodations were bad. Some rural communities were depressed. He even began to sour a bit on Steinbeck at times, as he realized that Steinbeck did not always really try very hard to talk with the locals. But then he would find a place that he loved, such as Jefferson City, Missouri, where the people were friendly and he could walk in to the state capitol without a security check.

The 2008 presidential election and the bad economy serve as subplots during Barich travels. He talks to many people about their voting plans and even attends a Sarah Palin rally, where he talks to the political button salespeople. He is disturbed by the great number of people who pay more attention to the rumors than the actual facts. Unlike Steinbeck, he does not, however, despair over the political process and future of the country.

Long Way Home may appeal to readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson's I'm a Stranger Here Myself, another story of an expatriate's tour.

Barich, Bill. Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 9780802717542.

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