In Slow Road to Brownsville: A Journey Through the Heart of the Old West, David Reynolds drives the length of Highway 83 from where it starts at Swan River in Canada, to Brownsville on the US border with Mexico. Reynolds in British, though his grandfather lived for a while near Swan River, and this gives him an outsider’s perspective on things American. For example, he asks a friend of his about someone who happens to come up in conversation called Schoenrath. “In England, we cannot help speculating on the origin of a name. But to Stuart [the American he was talking to about Schoenrath] German names, Ukranian, Swedish, Irish, Russian, and any European names, are all the same: labels, not guides to race or nationality, nor, I am sure, to class.”
Reynolds drives Highway 83 because he wants to travel the US backroads rather than the Interstates. It takes him only until page 49 to mention William Least Heat-Moon, who wrote Blue Highways, a book I very much enjoyed reading many moons ago. It strikes me that Reynolds is a fairly gentle person, and this is a gentle book, with few major revelations, but this does not mean that Reynolds is not an excellent writer, or that the book is boring – it isn’t, at all. Reynolds meets numerous locals during his travels, relates their opinions and stories, and then moves on, describing the landscapes as he passes through the mid-West. Somehow, due to his skills as a writer, it all ends up being quite compelling.
He’s aware of the local history, especially of the Indians (a term he uses, as do the locals he meets including the Indians, rather than Native Americans or First Nations people) and cowboys, and he’s quite fascinated by them.
I particularly like his chapter titles, which have obviously been chosen with care, such as “Where the Dead Guys Aren’t” (about the Boot Hill museum where the bodies have been moved to a new location); “Two Panhandles and the Cherokee” and “Truman Capote and the Clutters”.
Reynolds spends a day with a fascinating lady, Carol, on a ranch near Menard, and discovers more about the history of that area. Another time, he finds out why the white Americans seem to accept Indian, but not black people (they don’t see the smaller number of Indians as threats). He finds out that Highway 83 along which people moved alcohol during Prohibition is now a drug route from Mexico to the north.
Slow Road to Brownsville is a well-written road trip book, a genre I always enjoy, and I enjoyed this book as well.