Trailing Dreams of America, 2005

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“Trailing Dreams of America” — A Sabbatical Proposal -- PJClements


I asked, and Peddie agreed, to be granted a sabbatical leave in the Spring of 2005 for the following project: a four month solo bicycle trip across America, following historical trails Americans used over the last four centuries to head to new homes and to new dreams. I will not only follow the paths of these earlier Americans but also meet and talk with modern folks along the way, inquiring always about their “Dream of America.” As a teacher of literature, especially English 11 (American Literature) and Literature of Travel and Adventure, as a proponent of the value of primary experience as a critical part of all our learning, and as a member of the community who wants to live the same values we profess, I want to combine scholarship, personal challenge, experiential learning, and a little practice in courage and humility.


The Idea


I plan to leave Peddie and the suburban northeast in March, 2005 to travel the backroads of America at a pace that allows observation, reflection, and conversation. In the tradition of earlier observers of America, I want to talk to people on the way and listen to what they have to say about their lives and dreams. By itself, I think this would be a  terrific exercise, talking to people all across the country about their lives, and presenting their thoughts and feelings so these Americans can speak for themselves.


However, my route may add a layer or two to this conversation, for though the people I meet will be speaking in the present, there will be historical echoes of older American stories along the road. I plan to travel from Hightstown to Philadelphia along the Old York Road, a 17th century road that connected two great cities of colonial America. From Philadelphia I will head west along the Great Wagon Road, an 18th century road that opened new territory beyond the settled coast for land-hungry colonists. I’ll leave the Wagon Road in western Virginia to cross the frontier mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee via the Wilderness Road, a path Daniel Boone opened across the mountains to open up more fresh land. Along the Wilderness Trail I will follow the spread of settlers into Kentucky and central Tennessee to Nashville, where I will pick up a 19th century road, the Trail of Tears, the route thousands of Cherokees were forced to take as they were removed to new land. From the end of their trail in the “Indian Territories” of Oklahoma I will pick up another trail, Route 66, a 20th century road that linked the Midwest to the fertile promise of southern California. I’ll follow Steinbeck’s “Mother Road” across the American southwest, crossing the western mountains and deserts, and finishing at the Pacific, in Santa Monica, California. I’ll follow four centuries of roads across America, in sequence, each trail taking Americans off to new homes and new dreams.


Along the way I will talk to modern Americans, asking about their dream of America now. I hope to interview, record, and photograph folks as I travel. After I return home, I will construct a web journal with a full account of the trip, a travelogue built with people’s stories along the way.  I’ll write about, and follow, plenty of people who came before me. I’ll retrace the paths of those who followed these routes – people who eagerly left behind old lives, people expelled or evicted, people too hemmed in or too ambitious or too wide-eyed to stay put. I’ll follow other travelers as well, observers and writers who crossed the country observing, listening, and thinking about this new country, writers walking, riding horses, floating on rafts and riverboats, driving dusty old vehicles, riding bikes. Though in some ways I will be following old trails across the wide range of land in America, I suspect this will become a journey into the range of Americans in the land now. Finally -- and who knows how thus will turn out -- while this crossing will be a physical trip along the trail of others before me, it will an interior journey for me, the nature of which I know I cannot even imagine.


-- PJClements




Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

                                       -- Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad