In 1960, John Steinbeck completed an epic road trip across the entire continental United States, covering over 10,000 miles. After spending a decade living between New York, England, and France, he wanted to get back in touch with the land and the characters who peopled his novels. So he set off in a customized truck and camper shell with only Charley, his Standard Poodle, for company. He traveled through America at a time of transition, on the cusp of a key presidential election, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years later, we believe the decade beginning in 2010 is an equally key period in American history. As in Steinbeck’s day, we are once again wondering about the direction of our country, about how the rich should relate to the poor, how majorities should interact with minorities, and what our responsibilities are to each other.
But in the run-up to the 2012 elections, we suddenly realized we didn’t really know America anymore. We spent the last decade living abroad, in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Like Steinbeck, we’ve become dissociated from our country of origin. We no longer know where home is; what was once an intimate knowledge of America has been replaced by an imperfect memory and a mediated image, seen through a foreign lens. Now in our thirties, we’ve moved back to the land of our birth and find ourselves experiencing profound culture shock. America is a place that still holds a fascination for us, a place we find both compelling and confusing.
Like Steinbeck, we are trying to rediscover something about ourselves. Like all good Americans, we decided the best way to accomplish this was to take a road trip. Our travel narrative is the story of our 10,000-mile journey, our experiences and interactions with the people and the land, our observations about the culture, and some thoughts about our collective future. Along the way we’re drawing on Steinbeck’s prophetic observations, building on his foundation.
We’ve already completed the first half of our journey with a 5,000 mile road trip across the Northern states, through the Mountain West, across the Southwest, and up the West Coast. We plan to complete the remainder of the trip this summer, down the East Coast, across the South, back through the Midwest, and up into Maine. Along the way, our dog-eared copy of Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley in Search of America, has been a constant companion. Steinbeck’s voice has helped us ask and answer our own questions about America. Re-Learning American is a lot of things. It’s a record of our own epic journey. It’s an interaction with a national landscape, with a national dialogue, and with Americans on both a personal and a national scale. It’s an effort not to take ourselves or this country too seriously. Above all, we hope it’s an entertaining and insightful look at what it means to be an American in today’s world.