Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation.
Ron Jacobs, Burlington, Vt: Formite Press, 132pp, $12.00

The literature of itinerant travel, “on the road,” has been a search for the Lost Highway of American life as soon as turnpikes (often based on Indigenous people’s trails) offered escape. Escape from what? Or in hopes of discovery, what?  This is even now an unanswered question.

John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed, hit the road when there were too many other mouths to feed, and spent most of the rest of his life as an itinerant, offering pacifist Swedenborgian teachings along with appleseeds to those who gave him a bed to sleep in. American kids of the 1950s, including myself, learned about him from a Walt Disney animated short or the four 78” record set.

German immigrants of the later 19th century followed the “Wanderjahre,” wander year, traditions of their forebears, sometimes free spirits and free lovers joining labor campaigns along the way. Naturalist John Muir walked a thousand miles from Wisconsin, Wobbles famously hit the road with fellow migrant workers, and Jack Kerouac established or perhaps re-established a literary genre of restless wanderers.

Very often, right from the beginning, they took in scenes that disturbed them. Johnny’s fellow pioneer folk thought nothing of wiping out anything in their way, Native Americans and forests alike. Small town conservatives called the German-Americans “Tramps” if not bomb-throwing anarchists. Mothers and fathers worried about their daughters in the hands of Beatniks. And so on. Gary Snider fled to Japan searching for something better as others headed for Mexico or elsewhere.

None of them, it is safe to say, traveled in grand form. Ron Jacobs is their successor, I think, because he mounts the back seats of long-distance buses across thousands of miles, sometimes taking the train, stopping where he has friends or feels the need, all the way from Burlington, VT to Sacramento, California.

My own impression, now years in the past, is of cities, the old downtowns that I visited, in serious decay. Sprawl had struck some of the smallest places. And environmental waste had grown evident on all sides. Jacobs sees all this and a lot more, because by this time, homelessness is rampant, making yesteryear’s Skid Rows look miniscule and almost quaint.

Meeting friends in some places including places that he used to live, he finds counter-culture communities of artists, and surviving communities of the homeless who are now so familiar in places like Portland, Oregon, as to be a naturalized part of the environment. He also drifts into memories of political movements and political moments of his days in the region, the 1990s when a kind of anarchist sensibility followed the collapse of the East Bloc. Perhaps this surge of interest anticipated the police surveillance that he notices as recent and ominous, or helped bring it about somehow. A reminder that Lockdown is more anticipated and more possible with each security innovation.

Moving on, he reaches Austin, Texas, with a zone of lovely newish parks around a city whose once-famed counter-culture has been wrecked by rampant redevelopment. Like Madison, Wisconsin, “the Austin of the Midwest” (as Austin was the “Madison of the Southwest) success has been good for the successful, but hard on the environment and hardest of all on the poor and the Bohemians. Suddenly, traveling by train, he is in St. Louis. Then Joliet, Illinois, not far from my Central Illinois home region, but closer to a Supermax, where the guards smoke dope while watching the prisoners. Then, via Chicago, Eastward again.

Scattered photos reinforce the points he wants to make. The closed factories and emptied-out downtowns look a lot the same, coast to coast. What you can see from a train window is often urban scars but also old warehouses with tractor trailers nearby, set to do the hauling on the roadways. He is cheerfully surprised by some new fellow-travelers like the Indiana Amish, who make their living building furniture mostly, but live their lives as far outside the market economy as possible. They are hoping for community survival.

There’s more to say about his recollection of other visits around the country, of his Minnesota relatives, like his grandad, a steamfitter for Grain Belt Beer.  Of a visit to Florida where everything he sees keeps him nervous at the prospect of global climate crisis meeting an unending population rush, presided over by rightwingers seemingly indifferent to what is ahead. This is all, for Jacobs in the closing paragraph, a very bad sign of business having conquered culture, “a trajectory that will require an incredible struggle to change.” (p.132). Indeed.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.