Blue Highways changed my life. I read William Least Heat-Moon’s account of his journey along the back roads of the United States when I was twenty, and I’ve been looking to repeat that literary thrill ever since. Enter Patrick Dobson, whose Great Plains quest, Seldom Seen, seems to plumb the philosophy of George Clooney’s Up in the Air character, Ryan Bingham. “Imagine for a second you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. […] Feel the weight of that bag,” says Bingham. “Make no mistake. Moving is living.”
Having painted himself into a corner, literally and emotionally, the 31-year-old Dobson sets out with his own overstuffed pack and a gnawing sense of restlessness. A seeker, he’s desperate to find a deeper sense of self than he’s managed to cobble from a forty-hour workweek, evenings in front of the tube with a beer, and weekends-only with his three-year-old daughter. He leaves his job as maintenance engineer in a local hotel and takes two-and-a-half months to walk from his home in Kansas City, Missouri, to Helena, Montana: “Taking off across the plains struck me as the right and proper thing to do. I would inundate myself in sky and land. Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming…would show me a way to find a new life.”
People often think of the Great Plains as an in-between place – the flyover zone between the more-populous coasts. On his trek, Dobson stumbles even deeper in-between, to places like the corner store in tiny Randolph, Kansas, the unlikely organic tomato greenhouse in Gering, Nebraska, and the truck stop supper club of a former carny in Casper, Wyoming. Dobson can’t help but meet a troop of folks – some odd balls, others quite ordinary, some leery of a backpack-toting stranger, others drawn to him and his quest. “The pack’s like a business card of a person with a strange or exciting occupation,” he explains to a cook in Yellowstone National Park. “People can’t help but ask.”
No doubt Dobson took the opportunity to double-exorcise his demons – once on the trek itself, and again while reliving it through the writing:
I wanted to be free of what made me an unhappy, maladjusted person. [...] It was better to meet each day without a notion of what I wanted to happen, and instead live with what did…My business was to deal with things as they came…There was a long way to go.
Along the way, the author shares the stories of those people – kind and scary, generous and needy, “seldom seen by the rest of the world.” In the scope of Dobson’s hero’s journey, these people become his mentors, challengers, allies, and enemies. Thus, at the end, we readers are left with a real sense of the author’s accomplishment. Not only has he changed throughout his trek, but many of those he meets en route seem to benefit from connection with him. In Jackson, Wyoming, a South African boat captain turned elk-antler-chandelier-craftsman insists, “Walking into people’s lives does more good for them than they do for you, though it doesn’t always seem that way. This trip you’re on, it’s not all about you, regardless of whether you know that or not.”
The Great Plains backdrop succeeds as metaphor for what’s wide open before us. We just have to look up from our feet. Occasionally, though, the author lifts us to loftier heights than the book’s overall tone obliges. “Bud-filigreed trees scratched against the melancholy dimness of the day” and other such overwrought imagery threaten to derail the down-to-earth tone of the book. The story works best when the author chucks the lofty poetry for supple prose.
Another problem: no map. I imagine the author feels that if he provided a map of his journey within the book’s pages, it would undermine the pervasive uncertainty he wishes to convey. Relating to Oregon Trail travelers, he says,
The maps some carried were indistinct and uncertain, and could never tell their owners how the journey and landscape would make vast personal changes in them along the way. But if my trip had shown me anything, it was that once on a road, or a worn path, one is never lost. One may be disoriented or unsure of the direction he or she is headed. But a trail, a path, a road leads somewhere.
Whatever, Dobson, give me a map, a rough map, any map’ll do.
Maplessness and lofty snippets aside, nothing can diminish the heart poured into the overall narrative, with its regular people doing regular things, vast skies, open plains, and endless horizon. Every weighty step of Dobson’s Great Plains backpack odyssey teaches the author to winnow his load. He learns to keep in his pack only those things he most needs and values to keep moving, to keep living. So while I pine for William Least Heat-Moon, circumnavigating the blue highways of America in a van called Ghost Dancing, I am nevertheless pleased to encounter a backpack-schlep through the flyover zone with Patrick Dobson. I couldn’t help but enjoy that trip, too.