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Off the Road

Portraits of drifters and bums fall flat

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After suffering through yet another bleak and dreary London winter, journalist and travel writer Richard Grant opted to trade in the comfort of his cushy sedentary life hanging out at the pub for one on the road in the American Southwest.

Following in the footsteps of a gazillion others, Grant set off on what would become a 15-year adventure, during which he boasts to have never stayed in the same place for more than three weeks. The result of his wanderlust is chronicled in American Nomads: Travels in a Restless Land.

What Grant finds as he pinballs around the West -- mostly a wealth of drifters, hobos and other borderline miscreants -- either speaks volumes about the loss of the American wanderer or about Grant's efforts to ferret out the next Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady from the scores of truck stops, campsites and RV parks he visited.

Woven throughout the 320-page book are historical accounts of other American adventurers, from roving conquistadors and fur trappers to early explorers. Most of them, though, are far more fascinating and inspiring than any of the tramps and truck-stop prostitutes he tries to glorify as the enlightened, modern nomad.

Take Cabeza de Vaca, for instance. The Spanish conquistador, whose name means Cow Head, was shipwrecked and enslaved by native Americans. De Vaca later escaped and slogged more than a 1,000 miles on foot across portions of Texas, Arizona and Mexico, convincing the natives he met along his path that he was a spiritual healer and even inspiring a movement of followers that trailed him on his journey. Or there's the 20-year-old wanderer and writer Everett Ruess, who renounced the modern world and disappeared into Utah's canyon country in 1934. The only traces of the idealistic youth ever found were his size-nine boot tracks that seemingly vanished mid-step and a single inscription carved into a rock that read "Nemo, 1934" -- an apparent reference to his favorite Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

These and a handful of other intriguing historical footnotes are the saving grace of a memoir otherwise populated mostly by ruffians, addicts and derelicts who are more likely to turn up at a homeless shelter or detention center than in any future annals of American road culture.

Take B.J., for example, the louse-infested hitchhiker Grant picks up on the side of a west Texas highway, then proceeds to spend 10 pages describing how "resourceful" he is because he can skin and eat a rattlesnake. After the drifter makes a racist remark, however, Grant lectures him on being more politically correct before booting him from the car. The reader's natural response to this situation is inevitably: "Dude, what did you expect from him, Shakespeare?"

The only interesting modern "nomads" Grant meets are a bunch of young cowboys on the western rodeo circuit that he bounces around with briefly, staying out all night drinking and traveling from one dried-up town to the next. This is the closest the book comes to any truly unique characters -- unfortunately, it comes far too late in the memoir.

While Grant's romantic idea of the wild American West may appeal to his pale, stir-crazy British brethren, it's bound to feel cliched for those of us who grew up watching Easy Rider and reading the Beats, as does his continual effort to glorify what he perceives as the noble poor that drift along the back highways like tumbleweeds. Grant would have been more successful had he set out to write a more haunting portrait of the people who live on the road rather than try to shape their lives into something more idealistic and noble than it really is.

Grant demonstrates that he's a solid writer with a good eye for detail and color. It's just a shame he didn't have better luck finding more interesting or endearing characters to write about. It makes the reader wonder whether Grant simply looked in all the wrong places or if the true American nomad has gone the way of the buffalo.

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