George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

O Pioneers! II

More about the Pioneers who were the first to like the facebook post:

Philip Aaberg‘s music of place was inspired by the work of Wallace Stegner and George R. Stewart.  I met Phil thanks to Teacher Richard Brong of Galena Hi in the Reno area.   Phil composed “Earth Abides,” and Richard wondered if the title referred to Stewart’s great novel.   I tracked Phil down, called his company, Sweetgrass Music, spoke with his manager (and wife) Patty, and eventually to Phil.   And thus began a friendship.  Phil spoke and played at the CONTACT George R. Stewart Symposium, endorsed the GRS biography, and did a fine review of the book for the Great Falls Tribune.   He’s been busy recording new CD material, and is working on a classical CD at the moment.

Paul Starrs, distinguished professor of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, was another endorser of the GRS biography.  Jack Stewart connected us, and Paul invited me to address the Geography Graduate Colloquium.  He’s published books about one of the places Stewart wrote about; and recently, about California agriculture.   The photos from the latter book are now on display in the Bancroft Library — which is also keeper of the George Rippey Stewart, Jr., Papers.

Michael Ward is an active ePublisher, a judge for the HUGO awards, and the creator of the George R. Stewart webpages (accessed through a link in the menu at the top of the page).  He has been instrumental in the production and publicizing of the book, and is thus deserving of great praise and appreciation.

I’ve known Diane Farmer Ramirez almost since she was born.  Her mother and my then-wife worked together.  Her father, Dave, is a fine photographer, a collector of Leicas, a very good friend (notably in times of need) who once sold me a good car for 50 bucks.   Diane and her husband are raising a wonderful family – which is somewhat hard to visualize since to me she’s still a kiddo herself.

One of the leading experts on U.S. 40 and the National Road, Frank Brusca was a great help with the book.  He’s quoted in the chapter about Stewart’s classic U.S. 40.   Frank has written for AMERICAN ROAD magazine.  He has a minor starring role in William Least Heat Moon’s latest book, ROADS TO QUOZ, appearing in several chapters about the National Road and George R. Stewart.  Frank is currently working on an update to Stewart’s U.S. 40.

Gus Frederick, artist, publisher and CONTACT Board of Directors member, helped with the cover art for two books related to GRS — notably a teacher’s guide entitled From GeoS to Mars.   When he’s not working on one of his projects, he has been a great supporter of the GRS work. Gus also works closely with Dr. Penny Boston, exploring caves that may hold secrets to life on Mars.

Julie Shelberg is another kind stranger who likes the GRS page.   Since she’s a reader of science fiction, I assume she found us through searches for Stewart or EARTH ABIDES.   I do know that two of her daughters have just graduated from college, and that she has some fine, stirring quotes on her facebook postings.

Frank Brusca pointed me toward Harmut Bitomsky.  Inspired by U.S. 40, and commissioned to do a TV film about America’s Westward Movement, Bitomsky decided  to focus on the highway rather than the wagon trails.  The result was Highway 40 West, a film series which has become a classic in Germany. Bitomsky was Dean of the Film/Video School at CalArts, a university appropriately founded by Walt Disney, so our email interview was pretty easy to do.  He shared a deep understanding of why he made the film, adding some comments about other books of Stewart that have become favorites of his.  Bitomsky plans to release the film in an English version soon.

A key player at the old Walking Box Ranch – see her interviewed at about 38 minutes into this excellent BBC documentary Paula Garrett field manages the place for UNLV.  She had the great good sense to hire me as Caretaker; and the even greater wisdom to include my interpretive ideas, and me, in the planning process.   She’s also bought the book, and read it, the sign of a good mind.

In the next and final list of Pioneers, I’ll introduce those who like, and follow, the weblog pages.

Earl Swift’s BIG ROADS — a good read for lovers of the American road

Big Roads, by Earl Swift, is a fine history of the US highway system as it evolved from mud trails to interstates.   Along the way, the system changed from privately developed named highways like The National Old Trails Road and the Lincoln Highway to the federal/state U.S. Highway system (the Route 66 era) before it became today’s interstate system.  The book describes how the hard work of dedicated engineers and community leaders – sometimes in conflict with each other – resulted in both a fine highway network AND a growing realization of the human and ecological cost of highways.

Although George R. Stewart wrote several of the first American Highway books, including U.S. 40, he isn’t mentioned in Swift’s book.  But his ideas — that highways should travel through rather than over the land, and that travelers benefit by visiting  the communities along the old highways, a mile or two from the offramp (an idea taken up beautifully by William Least Heat Moon in Blue Highways and embellished, with the help of Frank Brusca in Roads to Quoz) — are similar to the ideas Swift lays down in his  last chapter.

a good read, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of the American roads, or any traveler driving those roads.

Link

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/403598191/george-r-stewart-us-route-40-rephotography

Frank Brusca’s 40 year project re-photographing George R. Stewart’s U.S. 40.  This is Smithsonian quality work, which builds on Stewart’s classic book and Tom and Geraldine Vale’s equally classic U.S. 40 Today.  Well-worth supporting.  Check out the website.

Stewart’s book inspired two German films, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Least Heat Moon’s Roads to QuozRoads has several chapters about Stewart’s work, and Brusca’s.  Frank’s done most of the re-photography on his own ticket; this funding will allow him to complete the last 20%.

Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 book

Frank Brusca has been working on a book of current photographs of the places Stewart photographed n the early 1950’s for his book, US 40. Things look promising for Frank’s book, and we expect to be able to post big news about it soon.