American road, English reserve

Slow Road to Brownsville
by David Reynolds
(Greystone Books)

slowroadcoverAny idea where Highway 83 goes? You’re not alone. It may be “the Main Street of the Great Plains”, but many who look out on it daily through motel and diner windows have no notion of how far it could take them. The answer: north to Swan River, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, or south to Brownsville, Texas, a bridge away from Mexico. David Reynolds, who travelled its 2,271 miles last year, did his bit to bring the locals gently up to speed. Now, with Slow Road to Brownsville, he does the same for the rest of us.

Reynolds feels an affinity with this road, and with North America in general. His grandfather lived in Swan River; Reynolds himself, who as a boy set plastic cowboys against plastic Indians, grew up to read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and says he was roused “to anger, despair, tears”. He wants to separate myths from reality; to see where the Indians lived and died, and how the descendants of their survivors live now.

His vehicle is a Toyota Prius, a “little red hybrid planet-saver”. His book, too, published in North America, is something of a hybrid, combining American spelling (gray, traveler, center) and evident enjoyment of the open road with the author’s countervailing impulse to act his age (61) and, more restraining, to act like an Englishman.

Comfortable in the car seat and memorable on the landscape (“like an assembly of giant buttocks” – South Dakota), he’s less at ease in the diner booth and on the barstool. Just 33 pages in, and two towns south of Swan River, he mentions his “English reserve” and his dislike of approaching strangers. More than 300 pages on, in Carrizo Springs, Texas, he has to be pushed by a waitress to have a drink in the bar next to her restaurant: “Go on! Mingle with somebody. It’s fun.”

In between, he does force himself to mingle, one result being an encounter with a remarkable widow to whom he devotes a chapter headed “Kind rancher”. A Republican who backs Obama, she tells him: “You can’t build a society on people who want to make a lot of money.”

What might he have heard if he had taken up his invitation to join a party in a bar that was open till 3am? What might have happened if he had got angry enough to confront the racist shopkeeper he met in Garden City, Kansas? Each time, English reserve and niceness (this is a man who goes to the rodeo and roots for the steers) got in the way.

William Least Heat-Moon, a writer Reynolds admires, declared that “life doesn’t happen along interstates”. That’s not to say that life on two-lane blacktops is like an episode of Breaking Bad. The slow road can be quiet, and so can a linear account of it. An author who denies himself noise can be reduced to retelling history (a whole chapter on Lewis and Clark), and to being companionable when he might have been compelling. MK

Slow Road to Brownsville by David Reynolds is published by Greystone Books at £10.99.
This review first appeared in
Telegraph Travel.

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