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‘The National Road’ Explores A Changing America From The Ground

Tom Zoellner by Erin Dunkerly. Jacket photo provided by the publisher
Tom Zoellner's new book explores America, in all its complicated angst.

Tom Zoellner made his first real road trip in July 1987. For the Arizona native, then enrolled at the University of Kansas, it was his first time east of Kansas. He got on I-70 with no real agenda, arriving in St. Louis in time to see fireworks explode over the Mississippi.

“Off the Poplar Street exit, I parked illegally and ran down to the water, touched the river that I was seeing for the first time, wandered through the crowds in the park, knocked on the gray-plated wall of the Arch, listened as the wife of then vice president George H.W. Bush made a brief speech to the crowd, yelling ‘Happy Birthday America!’ at the end,” he recalls.

And then he kept going. Into Illinois and up the Great River Road, then through Hannibal before heading back to Kansas. He didn’t stop to sleep.

That trip, Zoellner writes, remains a formative experience decades later, “a founding event whose anniversary I have tried to preserve.” He transferred to a different college, became a journalist, authored seven books and got hired as a professor at Chapman University in Orange County, California. But traveling the country both by car and on foot remained an obsession, a way of exploring America and taking stock of its fortunes.

That preoccupation forms the backdrop of Zoellner’s new book, “The National Road: Dispatches From a Changing America.” The 14 essays within it aren’t travel essays so much as a journey into the uneasy soul of the nation: what unites us, what divides us and what lies in the middle between the gleaming cities of the coasts.

In the book, Zoellner travels back to St. Louis to explore the meaning of “town” in a fractured metropolis and the post-Michael Brown era. He journeys to Spillville, Iowa, to report on President Trump’s immigration policies and the little Czech settlement where Antonín Dvořák once spent a sabbatical. He visits a host of landmarks for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the Temple Lot just outside Kansas City, which Joseph Smith believed was the site of the original Garden of Eden. (He also visits the spot where Smith was lynched, in Carthage, Illinois.) Zoellner attempts to climb the tallest mountain in each of the 50 states because — well, does there have to be a great reason? This is a writer who loves the open road.

Zoellner discussed his journeys Monday on St. Louis on the Air. He explained that his earliest road trip headed to St. Louis by accident. But the fact he was heading east was no accident. After growing up in Arizona, “the cities of the East seemed magical to me. ... These were places I’d read about, but never actually seen.”

And for him, St. Louis has never lost its allure.

“I think we all tend to look askance at the landscapes where we grew up,” he said. “When I go back to Tucson, Arizona, part of me is like, ‘Look at this mundane landscape.' But something about this wonderful American continent always benefits when you can see it from fresh eyes, and whenever I come into St. Louis again, it’s always something wonderful and dark and strange and mysterious. It still has that aspect. To go over to Cahokia, or the industrial cities of Illinois, or even to downtown at night. There’s a mystique to it.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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