Review: David Reynolds’ “Slow Road to San Francisco”

by J.R. Patterson
Slow Road to San Francisco Review

David Reynolds – Slow Road to San Francisco: Across the USA from Ocean to Ocean (Muswell Press 2020). Paperback, pp 413.

This review was prepared alongside an interview with David Reynolds. Book reviewed by J. R. Patterson.

The Great American Road Trip has long set the bar for the stylized getaway, being equal parts a metaphorical and physical manifestation of freedom. The ribbons of highway crisscrossing within the American continent certainly provide endless opportunity for discovery. In travel writing, the road trip often serves to medicalize the country in question–a vehicle and driver acting as the moving finger seeking out the pulse of the nation. Recent social awakenings and uprisings have made trips to and through the United States unavoidably political, as the knot of the country snarls tighter. A steady hand is needed, and, for good measure, a sharp-eyed and experienced practitioner. For David Reynolds though, idling on the Atlantic coast as he sets off on his own cross-country tour, a road trip is only a matter of “following history, which, in one sense, is going to be easy for me because all I have to do is start here and keep driving.”

Slow Road to San Francisco marks Reynolds’s second American road trip. In 2010, Reynolds drove south along Highway 83, from Swan River, Manitoba to Brownsville Texas, a trip that was published in 2014 as Slow Road to Brownsville. In Slow Road to San Francisco, Reynolds does much the same on a perpendicular, traveling “as slowly as possible,” on US Highway 50 from Ocean City, Maryland, to San Francisco, California. Highway 50 is ostensibly “The Loneliest Road in America”, with large stretches of town-less plains and desert. Traveling east to west, from Ocean City, Maryland to San Francisco, California, a route designed to emulate the crossing of the Americas by the European settlers, he passes through an America far from the regular tourist routes–the rural parts of states such as Kansas, West Virginia, Missouri, and Utah, are commonly referred to as “fly-over country.” It’s a parochial, rustic, complex, country. 

Given the severity of news coverage in America over the past half-decade, it comes as somewhat of a relief to follow Reynolds as he potters across those empty miles, insulated within a sensible little car he calls Harpo, after the Marx brother. Fittingly, there is an almost befuddled, slap-stick element to Reynolds’s depiction of himself, a portrayal his constantly getting lost does little to discourage. Here is a narrator that manages to be political but not aggressive, liberal but not condescending, affable but not foolish. It might not make for thrilling writing, but the title proves that’s not the point. Pressed to describe his motivation behind the trip, he invokes Robert Louis Stevenson, who said that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” It proves it to be as true about Reynolds as it is for him.

Reynolds is 69, retired, and edits books for a living. As a founding director of Bloomsbury Press, he no doubt has an eye for good writing. It’s curious then that so much of the book breaks the golden rule of travel writing: no blow-by-blow accounts. There is no shortage of chaff to blow away, and the many descriptions of meals, drinks, and laundry visits threaten to choke the flow of reading. But as a traveler, Reynolds is disarming enough for readers to forgive his various indiscretions against travel writing. His pleasant demeanor disarms almost everyone else too, ensuring a steady string of cheerful conversations that rarely move past small-talk. Reynolds’s America is a country with friendly folk ready to help a stranger, whether by buying him a beer or giving him directions. Not that Reynolds shies away from politics; he makes a point to gather opinions of Donald Trump and the American political system. But in 2020, the duality of hate and admiration he hears have become so commonplace as to be cliché.

By keeping his head down and himself to himself, Reynolds ensures a paucity to his interactions. He self-admittedly suffers from, what he calls in Slow Road to Brownsville, an “English reserve.” Whereas “Yes” is Dervla Murphy’s word for life-affirming travel, Reynolds prefers to treads the shallow waters of “Maybe”. While his genuine love for travel, history, and a general sense of curiosity shine through, they have their limits, and never overpower his routine of drive-hotel-restaurant. He is desperate to visit an Indian Reservation, and although he passes within spitting distance of several, including the Walker River, Duckwater, and Uintah and Ouray reservations, he never deviates from the road. It’s as unfortunate as it is strange–explaining the history of Native American culture is one of the book’s hooks, although the closest Reynolds gets to meeting a Native American is speaking to a trinket store owner “part Irish, part Dutch, part Indian.” At another point, he discovers he is driving through Chase County, Kansas, the setting of William Least Heat-Moon’s book Prairy Erth. Despite admiring Heat-Moon–it’s clear that his Blue Highways played no small part of inspiration for Reynolds–he lets the observation pass without analysis. 

In this respect and others, Reynolds largely satisfies his curiosity with polite musings from afar. Phrases such as “probably,” “could be,” “I guess,” “presumably,” “I suspect,” etcetera, are left without development, and drift dryly across the pages like tumbleweeds. Although he consistently finds people ready and willing to talk, they’re almost always encountered within the bars where he drinks, the restaurants he eats, the hotels he sleeps. Conversations tend to rely as much on eavesdropping and others’ interest in his London accent, as his gregariousness. Always conscious of taking up their time, these meetings rarely last long–in Colorado, for instance, he chastises himself for taking three minutes up of a cannabis salesman’s life.    

His greatest rewards are when he allows himself to write at length on a subject, or when he allows conversations with gregarious strangers flow. Visits to tornado-flattened Greensburg, Kansas, and a political bar-room chat in Salam, Illinois, shine as much for their length as their depth. Unfortunately, such moments don’t happen as often as they might. Despite taking the “slow road”–a languorous six weeks to drive the 3000 or so miles–the trip feels strangely rushed. Uneventful stops and descriptions of meals, beers, and landscape add pages, but not much else. 

“Events,” wrote the travel writer Paul Theroux, “ought to prove the world of the travel book.” Shedding a light of understanding on the culture and people of America demands more than a foreigner’s casual eye or passing fancy. It requires a good understanding of politics, culture, and spending more time talking to people than watching sports on television. By spending as much time describing the latter as the former, Reynolds describes an American political scene that is interesting and eccentric, but ultimately tepid. It would be asking too much of any book to predict the bizarre events of the social landscape of America today. But in Slow Road to San Francisco, there is very little sense of the turmoil America was undergoing in 2018, of the riots that had already broken out in St. Louis nor the ongoing wildfires raging through the dry Californian uplands. And that is to say nothing about the intervening two years of civil unrest and regional disasters. The events that are noted in real-time (the Mueller inquiry, Senator John McCain’s death and funeral) only serve to date the book, not illuminate the country. 

Trying to capture the pulse of modern-day United States is no easy feat. It’s a country that evades definition, defies explanation, and too easily falls to lazy parody. The modern convenience and simple language of 21st-century America are deceptive–creating serious travel writing there is as hard as anywhere else, and far from the pleasure cruise often associated with road trips. The country is as quick as it is large; no sooner does a cross-country traveler arrive on the west coast, than the east coast where they began has changed. All travel books straddle this fine line. If too specific they risk becoming dated and boring. Too vague, and they can fail to convey a sense of place. Reynolds drives as carefully as possible here, keeping both hands on the wheel, but still can’t prevent himself from slipping into the ruts now and then. 

Slow Roads to San Francisco may have worked better as a series of real-time newspaper dispatches–the chapters are short enough to suggest they originated as such. As it is, Reynolds is an affable travel companion. Following history, or following up on it, may not have been as easy as he first imagined, but traveling along with him in this highly readable book, will leave readers hopeful for a better future. 

David Reynolds – Slow Road to San Francisco: Across the USA from Ocean to Ocean (Muswell Press 2020). Paperback, pp 413.

This review was prepared alongside an interview with David Reynolds. Book reviewed by J. R. Patterson.

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