The Not-so-open Road


First Person

Hoarding books across the country.


Photo: Frank Kovalchek, via Flickr

Fourteen years ago, my mom bought herself a Volkswagen Jetta, and this Christmas she passed it on to me. My girlfriend Sheena and I did what anyone would: we packed our bags and set a course for Iowa.

What I mean is that we took an old-fashioned road trip, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, and Iowa City was our first port of call. If Sheena and I had set out in the summer we might have shot straight west into South Dakota and beyond, but in winter our rusting station wagon seemed about as likely to make it through the Rockies as to successfully invade Russia. Instead, we drove south through Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma, in search of warmer climes and easier roads. People sometimes complain that the Midwest is too flat, but that quality has its consolations. Mountains, like high heels, are attractive but impractical—especially in the snow.

So, Iowa. Of the many things New Yorkers take for granted, the subtlest may be the city’s disproportionate claim to a name it shares with an entire state. You can lop the City off of New York City and people will still know whereof you speak. Iowa City enjoys no such luxury; to most of the world, Iowa is a state and nothing else. Iowa the city—or the City of Iowa City, as the sign reads outside the City of Iowa City City Hall—is best known outside the state to writers, aspiring writers, and anyone watching the current season of Girls. The town is home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of course, but it’s also the only UNESCO-designated “City of Literature” in the entire United States. (The UN may have been celebrating the town’s esteemed literary pedigree, or simply acknowledging that, unlike a few other writerly meccas I could name, Iowa City is a place where budding writers can actually afford to live.)

I don’t suppose I’ll ever attend the Writers’ Workshop myself—even if they wanted me, I’ll still be paying off my journalism school loans when my grandchildren win their first Hunger Games—but all the same, Sheena and I thought we might soak in some of the program’s ambient creativity just by passing through town. We forwent a chance to see the world’s largest frying pan in order to reach the town’s premier bookstore, Prairie Lights, before close; afterward, we walked up the street to The Haunted Bookshop, a used bookstore that truly did feel haunted until I found the house cat crashing at intervals from the bookshelves onto an untuned piano.

From these two stores, we walked away with at least ten books. By the end of the week, as we drove south and then west from city to city, that figure would climb to thirty. Thirty books is, of course, more than any two people need in a week, and if I’m being honest most of those books were mine. (Sheena loves a good book as much as the next person, unless that person happens to be her spendthrift bibliophile boyfriend.) But driving hundreds of miles at a time, an act I viscerally associate with the dozens of laps I drove as a younger man between home in Minnesota and college in Ohio, uncorked the forgotten joys of my undergraduate years—chief among them the fantasy that simply buying a book guarantees that it will get read.

In the eight years since I last owned a car, I’ve grown accustomed to a kind of martyrdom in motion—walking my bike up San Francisco’s unforgiving hills, waiting countless hours for the next bus or train, paying fares for the occasional shoeless fellow traveler. In Kyrgyzstan, where I spent a couple years in the Peace Corps, an ambulance running lights and siren once pulled over to pick me up on my way into town. “Don’t worry about this guy,” the driver said, pointing an elbow at a moaning patient in the back. “He’s still got plenty of blood.”

Driving requires a different kind of fortitude. At first, the weather was as good as the gas was cheap, but eventually our southerly route backfired: we saw more snow in New Mexico and Arizona than at higher latitudes. One of our hosts, a kindly German who spent time in Tibet as a young man before becoming an old one in the hills above Santa Fe, strongly encouraged us to invest in snow chains ahead of a coming storm. The advice was sound, but Sheena and I had trouble accepting that problematic amounts of snow could find their way to any part of Arizona. The next morning, in Flagstaff, we could just make out the Jetta under a foot of fresh, white powder, as more flakes fluttered down.

The storm turned into a regional crisis—a frozen-watergate, if you will. “It’s a busy day!” the Arizona Department of Transportation tweeted cheerily when the snow first began to fall. A day later, when it had become easier to ski downtown than drive, that enthusiasm waned: “We’re getting reports of people playing in the snow on the shoulder of I-17,” a spokesperson all but sighed. “Please do not make this unsafe decision.”

A number of unsafe decisions eventually forced the Arizona Department of Transportation to close a ninety-mile stretch of Interstate 40 for nearly two days, effectively stranding us in Flagstaff. We used the time to work through our suddenly provident stockpile of books. In a cozy bed and breakfast, we knocked out about two books each over the next few days—Wolf in White Van, How Should a Person Be?, and others—venturing out occasionally for hot chocolate or pizza. The weather spoiled our plan to see the Grand Canyon, but watching the snow fall from a warm place, the woman I love at my side, was an equally natural wonder.

Ted Trautman has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and others. He lives in San Jose.