The Heart of the Country

When Mike McIntyre quit his job and went looking for the real America, something amazing happened. He found it.

Published December 23, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

mike mcintyre, a 37-year-old journalist with a beautiful girlfriend and a decent newspaper job in San Francisco, was living the easy life when he had a sudden revelation: His life was utterly devoid of meaning. "I was empty of passion. I was numb. I was halfway to nowhere. I was dead," McIntyre writes in "The Kindnes of Strangers," his chronicle of attempting to hitchhike cross-country without money, credit cards or even a book contract, with nothing more than a backpack and a passion to discover himself and America.
It's an old cliché that when the going gets tough, the tough male jumps in a car and burns rubber. Sure, we call it a "spiritual quest" as we bomb cross-country, sucking down trucker speed and counting mile markers to "The Land of Tiny Horses," but it's still pure escapism. Blame it on Kerouac: "On the Road," with its white-line-fevered hipsters speeding cross-country looking for people who "burn, burn, burn," gave birth to a quintessential American ideal, the archetypal disenfranchised, cool, yet restlessly curious male who constantly searches for the authentic amidst a wasteland crawling with squares.
Kerouac wasn't the first, of course. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with his railing against "the dismal regular," was arguably the first American road god. Twain captured the post-Civil-War restlessness, the westward-driving spirit of a new breed of Americans not beholden to Old World rules. Kerouac reflected the post-World War II anti-authoritarian bristling of a new, world-wise generation. In 1969 Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters piled into his psychedelic bus "Further" and were piloted around the country by none other than Kerouac's real-life hero Neal Cassady, a collision of dope-fiend, free-love freaks and a war-weary America brilliantly chronicled by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." In the '70s Hunter Thompson mashed the pedal, spawning a ruthless new ideal — the drug-crazed road warrior who obliterated
reality and any square in his path. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was a buzz-saw through the dark heart of a cynical and bitter nation. In the '80s the big road book was "Blue Highways," William Least Heat Moon's spiritual tale of his 12,000 mile van ride in search of a more innocent country.
At their best, road reads are like biopsies of the country, a clean slice right through the guts. They reveal the real, the raw, the genuine and are remarkably accurate barometers of the country's moods. But great road books, like great cups of diner coffer, are few and far between. For every perfectly strong endless cup there are hundreds of insipid, watery dreg-filled stomach-grinders. The ones that stand out are the ones that come from left field, lone voices in the wilderness. McIntyre's "Kindness of Strangers" succeeds by being counter-intuitive. When the author's spiritual crisis hit, he didn't chase after like-minded lost souls, but instead threw himself at the mercy of the entire country. He decided to play chicken with all the demons that made him want to run away from his sunshiny existence.
For his final destination, McIntyre picked Cape Fear, North Carolina, "as a symbol for all the fears I know I'll have to conquer if I'm to go the distance." McIntyre claims that he was "born scared. I grew up afraid of the baby-sitter, the mailman, the birds in the trees, the next-door neighbor's cat. I'm afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of the ocean ... the city, the wilderness. I'm afraid of crowds and I'm afraid to be alone. I'm afraid of failure and I'm afraid of success ... But what really scares the hell out of me is living."
In the fall of 1994 McIntyre decided to make a final stand against his fears by walking over the Golden Gate Bridge, then holding out a sign that simply read "America." He set out with grim fatalism, not sure what awaited him in a land where only serial killers and teen runaways hitchhike, a land saturated with images of guns, greed and Geraldo. Miraculously a man in an old beater gave him a lift north. While driving him out of the metropolitan area, he warned McIntyre that the newspapers were full of stories about two guys who were hitchhiking East, killing everyone who gave them a lift. Suitably chilled, the next car to give him a lift contained a creepy Jeffrey Dahmer-like character who drove him down a dirt road, parked, then said, "This is a good place to get your dick sucked." McIntyre remained calm and the driver didn't press the issue.
Rattled and ready to give up almost before the journey started, McIntyre walked to a campground and offered to do some work in exchange for a place to pitch his tent. The next day he willed himself to once again hold out his sign — and was surprised how quickly he got rides. He was also surprised by how anxious the drivers were to hear about his quest and how eagerly they shared their stories about their own trials and journeys. On the third day, still in California, one excited driver was so taken with his quest that he dragged him to a local radio station, which happily put McIntyre on the air with his story. The other guest, a transsexual firefighter, took McIntyre out for a lasagna dinner afterwards.
Over the next few days he wandered around Northern California, given rides by all sorts of hippies, including a 20-year-old in cut-offs and a bikini who drove him to out-of-the-way Ashland, Oregon, and waved merrily goodbye as she dumped him in a downpour. After a cold, very wet night of camping in a state park, McIntyre woke to find himself strangely invigorated, impressed by his own steadfastness.
That day a farmer couple drove him to a small town where he met Pastor Larry, a former Hell's Angel turned preacher "who saw the light at the end of a double-barreled shotgun." Pastor Larry hooked McIntyre up with a dirt-poor Christian family that was overjoyed to put up an agnostic stray. The next day a friendly older man crossing Idaho to get to his new family paid for McIntyre to stay in a motel. The day after that, in Boise, Idaho, a woman with a sprawling family insisted that he join them for dinner and that he crash on her couch. Suddenly everyone he met seemed to regard McIntyre as some mystical monk, a holy man on a spiritual journey they all wished they could take with him.
When one driver found out what McIntyre was attempting, she told him, "You're on a vision quest. You're an archetype. You represent middle America, who just got fed up and wants to discover the real America. Maybe America is now spelled with a small a, and you're out trying to find the capital-A America."
As soon as people found out that he had no money, almost everyone offered him food, money and, most surprisingly, asked them into their homes. One morning in Montana, a pregnant prostitute and her drug-dealing boyfriend fed him beers as they bombed him across the state. But this Lynchian encounter was an anomaly. McIntyre was now into the heart of the country, where dozens of average, "glue of America" types went out of their way to help him and get to know him.
After only two weeks on the road, McIntyre had shed his fearful skin and awoke each day with a calm acceptance of whatever the road was to offer him. "I've got a feeling that anything can happen, and that's just fine." As a journalist, McIntyre had felt that he would "never fully enter the world of [his] subjects." But now, like the slumming hero of the Preston Sturges film "Sullivan's Travels," McIntyre was an "average Joe" able to fully connect with people who had endured heartbreaking suffering and loss. In rural Iowa he was taken in by a woman who had been robbed and badly beaten at a convenience store where she worked. She told McIntyre that he was the first stranger she had trusted in the two years since she had been attacked. While McIntyre felt trepidation about getting into other people's cars and sleeping in a stranger's house, he now realized just how great a leap of faith they were taking. Imagine some polite drifter crashing on your sofa — would you be able to sleep?
Again and again McIntyre found himself picked up by "damaged souls," people who nevertheless had "a great amount of hope, a stubborn capacity to help other people." He was taken in by giant Midwestern families crammed into tiny trailers, their multi-generational disasters and tragedies proudly displayed as they stuffed him with pancakes, fried chicken and biscuits before sending him packing with prayers and sandwiches for the road. One remote farming family in South Dakota had so little water that they had to share bath water, but still made sure McIntyre had a hot shower. For good measure they took him to church and showed him how to shear a lamb. "A lot of the time I felt like I was walking through a collection of Raymond Carver stories, of people living on the margins, finding reason to get up in the morning, finding value in their wretched lives," McIntyre now recalls. And one of the great things about "The Kindness of Strangers" is how McIntyre captures the complex and varied lives of the fantastically "normal" people who helped him on his journey.
All across the Midwest and into Illinois and Kentucky, McIntyre was rarely on the side of the road for more than a few minutes. He was occasionally hungry, had a few cold, wet camping experiences, spent a dour night in a men's shelter, endured a few racist rants and many an unbeckoned sermon, and in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky, he declined a ride from two greasy kids who looked like extras from "Deliverance." Along with his experience on the dirt road in Northern California, the Deliverance boys marked the second of only two encounters of the Manson kind. This in a journey of over four thousand miles encompassing eighty-two rides. And only once was he hassled by cops, when he was almost all the way to Cape Fear. By the time McIntyre made it to North Carolina, he was deeply saddened that the journey had to end. He was so intensely in the moment, so in love with an America that seemed almost too good to be true, that he wanted the trip to last forever. McIntyre feels that the whole journey was "nothing short of a miracle."
In the '50s hipsters tore across the country looking for other true, authentic souls, the burning angels glowing in the dark-suited Eisenhower darkness. They sought to find themselves and camaraderie with the few other bright lights in the dark continent. In the '90s the new hipsters are burnt out, cynical, jaded, ten times removed from genuine emotions. McIntyre, who had been one of those jaded and cynical hip guys himself, decided that the only way to find himself was to throw himself into the dark void, and much to his shock he found that there was a safety net a continent wide, comprised of genuine, authentic Americans unafraid to connect with a penniless stranger. "It was about making some kind of connection and stop being the outsider which I've been all my life," McIntyre recalls. "For those six weeks I felt completely alive 24 hours a day."
On returning to San Francisco, McIntyre found himself dumped by his girlfriend and out of a job, but he had "learned perseverance and compassion" while having "the greatest experience of his life." He was ready to start living.
It may sound hokey, but "The Kindness of Strangers" is a truly heartening book, one that restores one's faith not just in the road, but in the openness and humanity of the people of this country. "I may be lucky," McIntyre writes, "but I think I found normal America."

By Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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