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A Slow, Glorious Trip Down the Mississippi

I first read Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban, in the early 1980s, as a restless cub reporter in Indiana. Right away, I knew this was the kind of trip I wanted to take.

Old Glory is a travel classic without Himalayan ascents, exotic foods or dangerous encounters in distant lands. Instead, it's a meander through the middle of America, by a bookish man who loiters at shabby taverns in has-been towns.

The genius of this book, for me, is that it brings alive an unsung world and reminds us that great travel doesn't require a passport, or even a plane ticket. The potential for weird and wonderful encounters is all around us.

Unlike so many modern travelogues, Old Glory is also free of gimmicks. It's an odyssey the author was meant to take, compelled by childhood longing. In the book's beautiful opening passage, Raban evokes the pinched world of postwar England, where he found escape in reading Huckleberry Finn and in tracing the Mississippi in a Victorian atlas as big as he was.

The story fast forwards and finds the author in his late 30s, "stale and dry" in London. On a whim, he lights out for the territory, to travel the river of his boyhood dreams. "I would try," he writes, "to be as much like a piece of human driftwood as I could."

But this is no sentimental journey. Even before Raban launches his small boat on the Mississippi, he almost drowns in a sea of plus-size Minnesotans, force-feeding themselves at a county fair.

What follows is one of the funniest and least flattering depictions of America I've ever read. "Every time I tried to turn my head," Raban writes, "I found someone else's hot dog, bloody with ketchup, sticking into my own mouth."

He imagines the fair-goers' ancestors, "hungry immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, lean and anxious men with the famines of Europe bitten into their faces. Generation by generation, their families had eaten themselves into Americans."

In Hannibal, Mo., Raban finds his beloved Huck has been "sivilized" and the waif's hometown has been tarted up, a sterile tourist trap. The once-bustling and now faded river towns where Raban docks most nights give the impression, he writes, "that the chief part of their day was devoted to lounging, spitting, scuffing their heels and swatting flies."

If Old Glory were just a brilliant, barbed portrait of modern America by an erudite Englishman, that would be enough. But the book is much more than that. As Raban floats south, he finds himself unexpectedly at home with both the river and the people dwelling on its banks.

His 10-state voyage becomes a melancholy parallel to the essential American journey, beginning with the flight from Europe and continuing with the rootless wander, always pulling up stakes and moving on. "I had no gift for permanence," Raban realizes after fleeing St. Louis, where he has briefly moved in with a woman. "Running away ... was what I was good at."

By the time he reaches New Orleans, the Mississippi's no longer the mythic waterway of his boyhood imagination. It has become something much richer, a river into his own soul and that of America.

Raban has since settled in the U.S. and written many excellent and more polished works, such as Bad Land, an award-winning tour of the northern Plains. But Old Glory remains my favorite of his.

I love the book's aimlessness, its lyrical rendering of things most travelers wouldn't bother to mention. Dead raccoons, for Raban, have "the dissolute repose of sleeping tramps," and the franchise sprawl of an approaching town is a colorful "mess of neon doodles." It's the raw, imperfect journey of a man still loyal to his childhood dreams and open to drifting in a way that becomes difficult with age.

Raban's book inspired me to embark on misadventures of my own, both abroad and at home. Now, 25 years after I first read Old Glory, when I feel stale and dry in my own writing, I know I can open it to almost any page and feel carried away again, as Raban once was by a river he calls "as big and depthless as the sky itself."

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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