Since ancient times, storytellers have used journeys—quests, pilgrimages, expeditions—as a way of ordering experience. And while there is nothing uniquely American about these travel narratives, the genre has a special appeal to a nation founded by voyagers from across the sea and shaped by the westward movement of explorers, adventurers, and settlers. After all, the greatest American novel is about a trip down the Mississippi, while the best book ever written about America is based on a young Frenchman’s travels in the 1830s.
Journeys have always been an important part of Robert Kaplan’s life and work. Most of his seventeen books have been shaped by his travels, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also in Asia and the United States. Earning the Rockies is his most personal and didactic book. Like many travel books, Earning the Rockies describes three different journeys. First, there is the author’s month-long drive in the spring of 2015 from his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to San Diego, California, which provides the narrative structure for the book’s first four chapters. Second, there is his journey back in time, to the past of the places he visits and to his own boyhood travels with his family, which gives the book its understated but pervasive elegiac tone. And finally, there is Kaplan’s interior journey that inspires his reflections on a variety of subjects, most but not all of them related to the landscape through which he moves.
Kaplan seems to have traveled alone: there is no Jim to his Huck Finn, no Beaumont to his Tocqueville. Instead, his most important traveling companions are other authors, especially three whose work he uses to illuminate both his own journey and the lessons it suggests. First and most important is Bernard DeVoto’s trilogy, The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952). Second is Walter Prescott Webb’s magisterial study, The Great Plains (1931). And finally, there are Wallace Stegner’s two classics, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954) and The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964). Kaplan quotes at length from these books, deftly deploying their insights to explain his own experiences.
Unlike many travel narratives, Kaplan’s itinerary is not punctuated by memorable encounters with people along the way. Kaplan’s goal is reflection, not observation; he seeks silence, not conversation. He does not engage with the natives. This is a journey of recovery rather than discovery, a journey in which the author seeks to reestablish his connections to the landscape, to revisit his favorite books, to refresh his commitment to understanding his nation’s place in the world. The distinctly American landscape through which Kaplan moves retains its natural grandeur, the vastness of its plains and deserts, richness of its soil, the majestic scale of its great mountains. But there is also the inescapable intrusion of what he calls “the nightmare of uniformity” expressed again and again in the motels and rest stops that line every highway. Between the roadway and the scenery is all too often a verge of weeds and litter that suggests a society unable or unwilling to protect its natural splendor.