Candy Moulton: Reading the West 1-16-12
Good travelers know that it’s not the destination, but the journey that really matters. In his new book “American Pilgrim: A Post-September 11th Bus Trip and Other Tales of the Road,” Bill Markley definitely takes you on a journey.
America was on edge in the fall of 2001 following the attacks of 9/11, and when Markley had an invitation to attend a college fraternity reunion, he was not certain about making the trip. A plane ticket was expensive, driving alone from Pierre, S.D., to Blacksburg, Va., and his alma mater at Virginia Tech was not very appealing. Then Bill got the idea to take the bus. It would be more economical than taking a flight, and with someone else to do the driving, it would be relaxing as well.
So with his mother-in-law as a companion for part of the journey, Bill sets off with his backpack filled with books to read, note paper for keeping a journal, and snacks. He sets off on what is a return to his college roots, a recollection of experiences around the world, and the making of new memories.
Bill has the ability to look into the window of the world with wide eyes and to capture the details and the nuances of life on the road. Traveling just weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crashing of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., Bill sees American flags all along his route, and in places observes signs that say “God Bless America and God Bless New York.”
As you read (and ride) along with Markley, you meet the characters of the bus. There are men and women who take breaks at McDonalds restaurants to get a fast sandwich so they can spend most of their time smoking outside the bus. There are folks who have little, but share their stories.
This is not just a trip across a good section of our country, but is also a ride though Bill’s memory lane as he takes detours to places like the Bertrand, a riverboat that sank in the Missouri River nearly a century and a half ago and a baseball game he saw as a boy between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. He takes you on a bus ride in Fiji, shares experiences from his work in Antarctica, and most of all gives you a view of life that is filled with the wonder of a child exploring for the first time.
That’s not to say that Markley is childish, or even child-like in his writing. It is to say that his voice is fresh, and fun, and spontaneous, which makes this a fast, fun read.
Admittedly, the stories revolving around the bus and his cross-country ride are more entertaining and more interesting than his reconnection with his fraternity brothers. But all in all this is the kind of book you can read and simply enjoy.