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for people who care about the West

The great American road trip

 

Long road trips are a guilty pleasure in the era of climate change. It’s one thing to recycle, buy organic, and switch light bulbs, but to give up the car altogether? Travel feels essential to an American’s experience of the world, and for most of us, travel means driving. Author W. Scott Olsen — who loves to drive, the farther the better — admits that his preferred mode of seeing the country is a “contradiction that cannot finally be resolved. But contradiction does not mean lack of purpose or hope.”

Describing several trips, ranging the continent from Death Valley to Kansas City to the Alaska Highway, Olsen stirs our own memories of the road, that sense of the leaving and returning to the places we have known. But At Speed is more than simply a book about miles logged. It’s a subtle exploration of the experience of movement. Much of what we know about the landscape comes through the windshield at highway speed, and instead of apologizing for this limited viewpoint, Olsen embraces it. The difference between local knowledge and chasing the horizon is only a matter of scale: “If the goal is to see a little bit of the whole world, then speed, to a point, is grace.” Not coincidentally, his writing is spirited, smooth and fast.

Most Westerners are used to long drives, and we value that experience in spite of ourselves. Being conversant with open spaces requires a large regional sensibility, and driving is a way of filling in the landscape that soon takes on a life of its own. Olsen meets with geologists and chats with hotel clerks, but specific places are usually relegated to the rearview mirror in favor of being on the move. Finding meaning in place has been the theme of much contemporary writing, including some of Olsen’s previous work, but At Speed suggests that the spaces in between also tell us where we are.

Seeing the landscape informs the imagination. But how do you justify driving from Key West to Prudhoe Bay? “I tell people I live in North America,” Olsen explains. “But, I don’t really know what North America looks like.”

At Speed: Traveling the Long Road Between Two Points
W. Scott Olsen
188 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2006.