Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

The Royal Road to Romance in the USA: Thomas Wolfe, Richard Halliburton, Eco-Tourism, and Eco-Poetry

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

The Royal Road to Romance in the USA: Thomas Wolfe, Richard Halliburton, Eco-Tourism, and Eco-Poetry

Article excerpt

My favorite boxes among Thomas Wolfe materials in the William B. Wisdom Collection at Harvard are those labeled "Other Papers Owned by Thomas Wolfe." (1) Two items from these boxes stand out: a little guide to public speaking that recommends "no awkward hesitations" and a brochure advertising a gut reduction exercise belt. Wolfe, a stutterer, had public speaking concerns. And by the time he went out West in 1938, he had developed, besides a bald spot, a notable paunch. Other items include matchbooks from various establishments and numerous canceled checks, most made out for ten dollars to New York's Harvard Club or to the corner liquor store. One check, if I recall correctly, was signed by Tom's sister Mabel to pay for the railroad tickets for their passage from Seattle to Baltimore. The boxes also include a packet containing a dozen or so black-and-white photographs (most unpublished) taken of Wolfe during his western journey. Now etched in my memory, these photos, with a little tugging of the imagination, enable me see to Wolfe walking about the different national parks he visited and prompt me to reflect on years gone by in my own life.

In 1952 pop singer Dinah Shore opened her weekly television variety show with the rousing, "See the USA in your Chevrolet / America is asking you to call"--a spirited come-hither invitation to invade the wilderness by automobile, which hardcore conservationists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold would have loathed. Another television commercial, one that had us kids laughing, featured the Men from Texaco singing, "Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief" to Offenbach's Can-Can. I am quite certain that Dinah Shore and the Men from Texaco inspired Mom and Dad to drive my brother, Dan, and me "out west" from our home in Milwaukee during the summer of 1953. Traveling in our '51 gray Chevy, we were not planning to visit all the national parks, as Wolfe had done, but to see the Black Hills (and Dinosaur Park), Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Needle Rock, and anyplace else our car, finances, and patience (mostly Mom's and Dad's) could endure. Since we were usually confined to a single neighborhood, Dan and I thought venturing to a new state was like going to Timbuktu or some dream locale in A Thousand and One Nights!

Highways were single lane then, and passing another car was dangerous business. On hot days, the car upholstery gave off a smell that nauseated, while the shocks in that great-hearted V8 did little to absorb the road's bumps and dips. Weeds grew from the cracks in the road's dimpled pavement. Encounters with light debris on the highway were common. Standing erect, their forearms bent, jackrabbits that seemed to be my own height inspected their options, then scurried into the brush. We spotted prairie dogs, and, once in a while, we saw or smelled a dead skunk. Buzzards pecked away at recently deceased carrion. We never saw snakes or lizards, but a fellow at a gas station told us that a rattlesnake had crawled into the radiator of his truck.

Often we would stop for a breather and a stretch. But mostly, the trip involved long stretches of dull, lonesome terrain accompanied by the sound of static on the car radio from the few stations we could get. It was hard for Dan and me to sit still; we would wrestle each other, and implore our parents, "How many more miles!?" Dad--practical, good-humored, if often remote--kept one eye on the scenery and another on the gas gauge. Idly, he would comment about the air pressure in the tires, an oncoming car, or an odd sight in the changing landscape. We drove hundreds of miles to the drone of a well-tuned internal combustion engine. Wolfe mentions being driven 404 miles on the first day of his national parks trip and 535 miles on the second day (Notebooks 965, 967), and--in a letter to Margaret Roberts-he boasts of "25,000 miles ... in the past 14 days" (775). (2) Such a young man's sport! A fellow the size of Wolfe must have groaned, cramped in the little sedan, with a driver and another passenger. …

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