Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo has long pondered the question — what holds as vast and diverse a country as America together.
In 2011, he set out with his wife and two dogs to cross the country in an old camper in search of the answer, about 17 years after the idea first came to him standing on a wind-whipped island off the Alaska coast.
The result of their 16,000-mile (25,750-km) journey is his latest book, “The Longest Road,” which chronicles his travels from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, in his quest to understand America’s identity.
Q: What first inspired you to venture on this trip and write this book?
A: Seventeen years ago, while I was in Alaska on a small island, I saw small Eskimo children pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States. Six months before I had been in Key West, Florida, and I saw the children of Cuban immigrants doing the same thing. I thought how remarkable it was ... children from two extremely different cultures were citizens of the same country. Somehow that vast, diverse nation with every nationality you can think of, somehow it has held together for 200 years.
Q: What was the fundamental question you were asking?
A: At the time there were a lot of political and cultural and economic problems in the United States that seemed to be tearing at our social fabric, and I was wondering — ‘Is the US holding together as well as it once did?’ I resolved that I would interview as many people along the way — what is the glue that holds the US together?
Q: And what answers did you find?
A: To tell you the truth, the views vary as much as the individuals. A lot of people just said it’s a tolerance in the United States for a heterogeneous society, even though we have exhibited gross intolerance in the past and probably still do. Nevertheless, if I could sum it up in a word, it’s the idea that we’re better off hanging together than we are hanging separately.
Down in Texas I met this young woman and I asked her that question and she said: “It’s hope. Isn’t that what it has always been?” It occurred to me that the hope for a better life, if not for you, for your children, is what has drawn people to this country for 200 years, and it’s still that hope that I think binds the country together.
Q: Was there something unexpected you found on your trip, something that surprised you?
A: I can’t say it shocked me, but I was distressed when I got in the middle of the country, in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, what we call the heartland, to see how depressed it is in many ways.
I grew up in the Midwest and I remember these farm towns I remember in my boyhood in the 1950s. They were vibrant, lively towns, and they’re all dying. Almost every single one of them is dying. We came to a town called Lebanon, Kansas, which is at the geographical center of the continental United states. The town looked like some very bad depressed neighborhood in big cities like Detroit or the Bronx in New York.
Q: Now that the trip is over, do you miss life on the road?
A: Oh yeah, very much. As a matter of fact, after my wife and I got settled back into our house ... we missed the road, especially traveling the way we did in this antique trailer. It’s a little like taking a voyage on a sailboat. It becomes a much more Spartan kind of life. We missed the simplicity of it, the absence of very distracting complications that come with ordinary life, from taking out the garbage to answering the telemarketer phone calls.