LOS ANGELES — In the age when it was coolest to be an American, we took to the roads, the seas and the air. We saw the country and the world.
After Jack Kerouac published “On the Road” in 1957, people called it “road bumming.” In the decades that followed, this wanderlust evolved into “backpacking.” Eventually the world was peppered with youth hostels welcoming us gringos with free Wi-Fi and continental breakfasts.
As the summer travel season approaches, people are canceling camping trips and cruises and every sort of vacation imaginable.
But isn’t taking to the open road an expression of our national character? From the Oregon Trail and “Huckleberry Finn” to “Into the Wild,” Americans love a good road trip. It could even be said that travel is what makes us American, since the Constitution that forged 13 colonies into the United States was penned, in large measure, to ensure the unencumbered movement of people to and from New England and Charleston — and every town and farm in between.
There are several candidates for the American king of the road — people whose travels were especially daring and boundless, who were forever allergic to “staying home.” For the last several years, I’ve been researching the life of one such man. Joe Sanderson was a self-described “road bum” who visited more than 70 countries and territories in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
“I can’t believe all that hitchhiking’s over with,” he wrote in 1962, after leaving his home in Urbana, Ill., traveling 1,300 miles, crossing six states and reaching Miami Beach without paying a dime in bus or train fare. He was 21 years old. “Altogether it took 24 rides. The variety of people was unbelievable.”
Drivers don’t pick up hitchhikers anymore. Long before the coronavirus, the world began to shrink for the free-spirited American trekker. In 1967, Joe Sanderson allowed his thumb and his pluck to carry him through Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. No American would dare to undertake such a journey today.
“Slight skirmish in the last village,” he wrote from Herat Province in Afghanistan, after witnessing a mysterious gun battle. “Ended up sleeping in the cop shop. Still not sure what crap was involved, but interesting nonetheless.” He kept hitchhiking, headed to Iran next.
Most often, Joe’s letters reflect the optimistic glow of a more open world than the one we know today, a time when Americans were seen everywhere as ambassadors of hipness and modernity.
In Rwanda, Joe passed himself off as a college professor to get free room and board (he was, in fact, a college dropout) and was invited to give a lecture to a local high school. In Iran he and his girlfriend were approached at the bazaar in Tehran and offered a role in a movie. (Tehran fancied itself then as the Hollywood of the Middle East).
The producers “said all of our expenses would be paid before the shooting started,” Joe wrote home to his mother. “Sounded nice, we told ourselves. But we declined. You didn’t need a movie star anyway, huh? More from Damascus.”
Joe’s blue eyes and aw-shucks charm won over new friends wherever he went: on ships on the Atlantic Ocean, on Patagonian highways and among the Pashtuns in Pakistan.
Will the road ever be that open again, I wonder?
Two summers ago, I drove my son to college from Los Angeles to New York, a 2,800-mile trip though the various ecologies of the United States, from Las Vegas to the Great Plains and the Alleghenies. If I took such a journey today, planning a route to avoid assorted rural outbreaks and quarantine roadblocks, I’d still face the prospect that the Utahans, Missourians and other locals on my path might not be that welcoming to a big-city Californian.
The golden age of American road bumming ended at about the same time the America military was preparing to leave Vietnam. Writing from El Salvador in 1979, with the country on the verge of civil war, Joe found the locals were suspicious of him. “Just like always, they figure I’m a commie or C.I.A., and that gets old.”
Even before the coronavirus hit, America was closing in on itself and turning its back on the world. We are ruled by a nativist president, suspicious of all things foreign. But when we stop going out there, on the road, we become a smaller people.
The open road has the power to transform and enlighten us. This is the lesson to be found in reading American wanderers like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Cheryl Strayed. Leaving home makes us a more self-assured and worldly people.
When Joe Sanderson left on his first journeys away from Urbana in the early 1960s, he was a Nixon Republican and a supporter of anti-Castro Cubans. Two decades later he ended his travels as a sympathizer of leftist rebels in El Salvador, marching alongside them with an M16.
By then, he had learned that one unexpected gift comes from hitting the road: How sweet your hometown looks when you get back.
“So set those cherry pies out to cool,” he wrote to his mother in Illinois, from the mountains of El Salvador in 1981. “All’s well and I’m coming home!”
Héctor Tobar is a contributing opinion writer and the author of the forthcoming “The Last Great Road Bum.”
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