by Hugh Gilmore
There’s a good chance half our readers will be in a despairing mood this week as our paper hits the streets. After all, who in modern memory can recall ever hearing so many people say they’re “leaving the country” if Mr. Trump/Mrs. Clinton is elected? That’s how deep the fear and loathing run nowadays.
But where, you wonder, can a person go, especially someone who thinks that all societies and governments are corrupt?
Perhaps it might be smart to escape to somewhere off the grid. Or simply take to the road and stay in motion for a while. If so, you might want to take along a few of Richard Grant’s “travel” books.
Grant is a transposed Englishman who got sick of what he perceived as his own country’s hypocrisy, corruption (and toadying to royalty), and took to the road – but with a twist. He has spent most of his adult life traveling along with, and writing about, people who have taken to the road or withdrawn to the back country. His books are astonishing, funny, frightening and fascinating.
Born in Malaysia, growing up for a while in Kuwait, then moving to London, he took a history degree at the University of London. After that his wanderings began. First: still in UK – working as a house painter, security guard, janitor and a house DJ.
Then he moved to the United States. He was attracted to the wide-open spaces of western America, surprised very much, however, to find that they’re not empty. They’re filled with people who had to get away from regular society.
He loves Gertrude Stein’s quote: “It is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving.” He became fascinated by America’s nomadic wanderers: truckers, freight train hoppers, hitchhikers, bikers, “hippies” living off the grid, even the large communities of normal, regular folks who sold their homes, bought trailer homes and have lived on the road ever since.
At first he simply wrote long letters to his friends about what he saw. They told him he should get them published. He began writing magazine articles about the people he met on the road. In 2003 he seamlessly pulled together his first book, “American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders.” It won the 2004 Thomas Cook Travel Writer award. Later he returned with a BBC camera crew to film a documentary that covers (superficially, but interestingly) some of the same ground and people. Called “American Nomads” (2011), it’s currently available on YouTube.
Every now and then Grant takes up a personal note about his love life, a big impediment to a nomadic life if not shared by one’s mate. Though he’d been serially monogamous much of his life, his yen for travel ruined his ability to hold a steady relationship, except with a woman named Gale. They hooked up off and on as he wandered with the wanderers until eventually they bought a home in Tucson together. “American Nomads” is dedicated to her.
That didn’t work out, however, for reasons disclosed only in a vague manner. Grant determined to console his achy-breaky heart by traveling the entire length of the Sierra Madres mountains alone. Everyone who knew about that part of the world warned him, “Don’t do that if you hope to live.”
The Sierra Madres are the home base of the North American drug trade. Both law and lawlessness begin there at the point of a gun. He went anyway. After all, even though he was a gringo, he was not an Americano; who would want to kill an Englishman? He learned Spanish, learned to ride a horse and set out with a few letters of introduction.
Suffice it to say that the book that followed, “God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre” (2008), is an exciting, wonderfully well- written excursion through a part of the world not many outsiders have ever seen. The novelist Jim Harrison called it the sort of book that “makes you want to go to sleep with a pistol under your pillow.”
Cheer up though, dear reader, if you’re unhappy enough with our new president, and you have a tolerance for AK-47s, beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner before settling down to cocaine and more serious drinking, and you don’t mind fatalistic poverty, corruption and endless confrontational machismo, you might pass for an Englishman and get to see the world from some of the most spectacular mountain tops in the world. Richard Grant, however, admits he’s still alive only through several strokes of luck, so bring your rabbit’s foot with you.
After that trip, life in Tucson for Grant, however, must have proved too stable. He traveled to East Africa in 2009 to trace the source of a river in Tanzania. His exploratory plans were almost immediately knocked off course by a series of bandits, rogues and local officials who again made coleslaw of his cabbage. The experience did result in “Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa” (2011). At this point in his career some reviewers began mentioning the reckless “mad Englishman” aspect of his character.
This year, however, Richard Grant has produced his finest book to date: “Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.” It won the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize for 2015. The book opens with Richard living with a new girlfriend, Mariah, an artist younger than he, in New York. Needing to get away, he proposes that they buy a fairly run-down former plantation house in extremely rural Pluto, Mississippi. After some persuasion, she agreed.
They moved there and settled in to encounter everything you might expect: race and racism, the blues, crime and poverty, alligators, poisonous snakes, guns and pickup trucks, excessive heat, instant rot of anything left outside. Richard settled into this life quickly, especially the drinking and music parts. But he retained his keen ear and eye for telling detail and a mind always bent toward the sociological and anthropological big picture. At the end of the book, after some trying struggles, Richard and Mariah got married. One wonders if this marks the end of his roving days. (Or if they’re divorced by now.)
That’s hard to know. In the meantime, to return to today’s theme, those who dislike our new president and want to leave the country might do well to move to rural Mississippi. From Grant’s description, it seems like the farthest one might go and be both on and off the grid at the same time. Whether you stay or leave the United States, you might enjoy these records of his travels.
Hugh Gilmore is the author the Amazon Kindle best-selling memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Also available in paperback.