Et in Arcadia Ego

As I suspiciously nosed my rented Corolla over the one-lane, open-grate bridge that crosses the Redbank River in Climax, Pennsylvania, two thoughts came to mind. First: is this thing going to hold? Second: if it doesn’t, when the locals fish a mangled car with New Hampshire license plates and a trunk full of Harvard College Library books out of the river, what the hell will they think I was doing here?

It’s possible, with the assistance of a good backroad atlas and a knack for knowing which turns are more interesting than others, to spend a lot of time seeing America. A century of inspired roadbuilding blessed this country with an impressive asphalt grid begging for travel. There are no passport tangles to worry about, the currency exchange is easy, and the language barrier—excepting a few regional absurdities—is nonexistent.

And, despite its domesticity, everything about these lightly-traveled roads tugs at the imagination like a vortex. Back in New England, our placenames are imported from Old England or cribbed from indigenous tongues. Here, rural idiosyncrasy spattered the map with enough wild suggestions to drive the amateur adventurer on a thousand elliptical side trips. Near Climax is Distant. A bit south are Muff and Echo. Elsewhere, places like Oil City, Coal Township, and Lumberville hint at vanished economic powerhouses. A few of these names belong to town centers equipped with American Legion halls and post offices. Most just indicate lonely crossroads.

This is why I came out here: It is a forgotten place. Forgotten, at least, by the tourists and academics of the stylish sort, whose Adirondack lodges and Urban Institutes largely bypass the dead ends of this nation. It is in forgotten places, however, where there is the most to be remembered. In one conversation, I learned about how Harry Truman was the only good president the country ever had. In another, I learned that the Earth is 6,000 years old. In still another, I learned about the best way to can apple butter.

I was unfortunate enough to set my academic sights on the United States, instead of well-endowed exoticas like China or Latin America for which Harvard has special Centers—and ac-companying budgets—set aside. As a consequence, finances were tight, at about $50 a day for gas, lodging, food, and research expenses combined—with 200 miles a day of driving, mostly fuel.

But my lentil diet and state-park lodgings were privations suffered with a measure of satisfaction, just as Thoreau proudly tabled his cheap expenses. In a part of the country where highway signs ward off drunk driving by arguing “you can’t afford it,” this lack of luxury doesn’t turn any heads.

So from day to day and atlas page to atlas page, this rural traverse continued on without much of a plan, tight purse-strings, and an eye for the improbable. It was a singularly liberating feeling. In interviews with sociologists, many Americans describe the feeling of moving around, rather than the right to vote or civic engagement, as their strongest association of ‘freedom.’ Peering around the bend of a switchbacked road, it wasn’t difficult to see why.

And yet, despite the cultural prominence of Kerouac’s On The Road or the raft trip of Huckleberry Finn, very few Americans, and fewer Ivy League students, seem to wander out here. Most of the tourists I encountered were on day trips, picnic drives with families. Out-of-state license plates were common only along borders and ‘cultural’ places like Fallingwater. Certainly it may be more high-rolling to visit Manhattan or more humanitarian to visit Malawi. Neither of these, however, come close to approximating the deeply American need, in Woody Guthrie’s words, to “roam and ramble.”

The roads aren’t all romance and freedom. There are places of deep, persistent poverty and places where all the interesting things have been paved over. In others, the pavement is falling apart. Questions beyond ones about the integrity of bridges—ones about the integrity of our society or the role of the educated class in it—remain stubborn and troubling.

But whenever the obstacles loomed too large, there was always another turn to take, a more distant road to drive down. I came to the backroads with few expectations and I left with few conclusions. For this is, after all, at the heart of what it is to be young and to be American: poor, free, often confused, and always limitless.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator in Cabot House. He traveled 3,800 miles of backroads this summer as part of a research project on rural America.