A Bicyclist’s Response to Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows (Pantheon, 2018)
During a four-year period, 2013 through 2016, James Fallows and Deborah Fallows flew back and forth across the United States in the single-engine prop plane that James had bought in Duluth, Minnesota (which is one of the reasons why they chose to study that city; another reason being that Deborah had strong childhood associations there). They visited 42 towns and cities—some large, like Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; others small, like Eastport, Maine and Chester, Montana.
Some of the places they studied are especially interesting to me, including Ajo, Arizona, Fresno, California, and Duluth, Minnesota, because I have bicycled through them, lived nearby, or have historic family connections.
Chapters in the book vary in length, from the twenty-page portrait of Greenville, South Carolina, to the three pages devoted to Guymon, Oklahoma. The shorter accounts usually are subsidiary to the longer ones, sometimes as examples of similar dynamics taking place in nearby locations, sometimes as evidence that renewal may not extend to neighboring communities. The Fallows speak respectfully about the places they visit even when what they describe is less than positive.
This book brings to mind other travelogues across the country. The one the Fallows cite is Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He was interested in seeing the America he had written about one last time and drove 10,000 miles with one question foremost in his mind: What are Americans like today? I think of Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. He too was traveling around the country, but he stayed on lesser roads, and visited only small towns. Because Steinbeck and Heat-Moon traveled in their own campers, they carried a fairly sizeable volume of personal supplies, were largely self-contained, and could come and go wherever and whenever they wanted.
The Fallows traveled 100,000 miles in their own small airplane but could only stop at places where they could land. They then had to find a way to get downtown where they usually stayed at a motel or hotel. When it served their purposes, they would rent a car, but they also walked and used bicycles they could rent in the community they were visiting. Read more. . .Our Towns