The Trip Structure

One type of organic structure that has always appealed to people is "the trip." The story is any kind of trip, usually told from beginning to end, has the advantage of following the logic of human thought (it proceeds from 1 to 10 or A to Z) combined with the organic logic of following the physical structure of the topic (the trip). This dual logic may explain the continuing popularity of "the trip"—beginning, perhaps, way back with Homer's Odyssey. More likely, it began even before the invention of writing—the returning hunter telling the clan around the fire about a trip, its dangers, its failures, and in greater detail, its successes.

Some trip reports concern themselves with the trip itself, a sort of scientific report where the rivers' rapids run; where hostile tribes lurk; where a factory's falls requires a portage; where industrial pollution prohibits drinking from a cup over the side of the canoe; what natural resources line the river; what tourist attractions are near I-95; how many icefalls occur on the Beardmore Glacier before the South Polar Plateau is reached; or where the Blue Nile begins to trickle out of Uganda.

Other stories of trips document not so much the physical side of the trip as what happened along the way. John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley tells us some of the physical details of the highways followed, motels visited, etc., but not enough for it to fall into the travelog category. He tells us more about the people he and his poodle, Charley, meet along the way, his thoughts about them, and about the mood of the nation. As he said near the beginning of that book:

My plan was clear, concise, reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. I, an American writer, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and the quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years____ So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.

Steinbeck structured the book around the trip, but he didn't care whether we could repeat the same trip ourselves without getting lost on the road. He just wanted the state of the union revealed to us in the same sequence he experienced it. The phrase "creative nonfiction" may not have been around at the time, and I don't know whether he'd approve of it, but that's the kind of writing he was doing in that book.

John Steinbeck seemed to appreciate the organic structure of a "trip." His greatest fiction, The Grapes of Wrath, "reported" on farmers driven off their farms near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, forced by the dust to make the arduous trip to Weedpatch, California, the land of plenty. Their trip gave Steinbeck an organic structure along which to string his observations about these people, the economy, and the government during those terrible years. Although he wrote a work of fiction about that trip, Steinbeck had done what a writer of creative nonfiction would have done—he traveled with those "Okies" as they moved westward. He immersed himself in the realities of their lives before writing. Travels with Charley gave him a nonfic-tional way to update himself and us—not a true sequel to Grapes of Wrath, but another look, another chance to feel the country. Recognizing this, his editors gave the book its descriptive subtitle, In Search of America.

Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and A Russian Journal all use the trip as an organic structure, but their nonfiction purpose is to tell us something more than details of the trip itself. Sometimes, as in those books listed, the author tells us about things that don't have much to say about the author. Other times, however, a book's primary purpose is to describe an odyssey of personal growth, an odyssey toward a new understanding of Self, of Life. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example, takes us along with the author, Robert M. Pirsig, and his son, Chris, as they bike and hike around America. The book's subtitle says better what I'm trying to say about the book's real purpose—"An Inquiry into Values." A writer of creative nonfiction articles and books, Edward Hoagland, said in praise of that book that it was "a magic book, full of the elixir of originality, about the majesty of the continent and the frights of the mind." Books structured around a trip but concerned primarily with matters that transcend the geographic are sometimes called "quests." This is a way to structure an odyssey of understanding, an exploration of inner lands.

Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon, chronicles his trip in a van around the perimeter of America, much like Steinbeck and Charley's peregrination. Blue Highways' subtitle is an accurate one—A Journey into America. Not a journey around America, not a journey through America, but a journey into America. Although he undoubtedly learned things about himself, he certainly learned a great deal about this land and its people. He talks on the first page about the night the idea for the trip occurred to him and why the concept of a circular route appealed to him.

The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I again lay awake in the tangled bed, this time doubting the madness of just walking out on things, doubting the whole plan that would begin at daybreak—to set out on a long (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States. Following a circle would give it purpose—to come around again—where taking a straight line would not. And I was going to do it by living out of the back end of a truck. But how to begin a beginning?

Blue Highways earned great praise from many quarters. A review by Robert Penn Warren said, in part: "A masterpiece.. .Least Heat-Moon has a genius for finding people who have not even found themselves, exploring their lives, capturing their language, and recreating little (or big) lost worlds, or moments. In short, he makes

America seem new, in a very special way, and its people new____"

Annie Dillard said of the book, "His uncanny gift for catching good people at good moments makes Blue Highways a joy to read."

To bring the circle full circle, William Least Heat-Moon makes clear on the book's final page what he learned from his quest:

The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way. If the circle had come full turn, I hadn't. I can't say, over the miles, that I learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn't known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn't know I wanted to know.

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