American Ramble review: a riveting tale of the divided United States | Travel writing

In spring 2021, Neil King trekked 330 miles from his Washington DC home to New York City. He passed through countryside, highways, towns and churchyards. His 25-day walk was also a journey through time. He looked at the US as it was and is and how it wishes to be seen. His resultant book is a beautifully written travelog, memoir, chronicle and history text. His prose is mellifluous, yet measured.

In his college days, King drove a New York cab. At the Wall Street Journal, his remit included politics, terror and foreign affairs. He did a stint as global economics editor. One might expect him to be jaded. Fortunately, he is not. American Ramble helps make the past come alive.

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, King stops at the home of James Buchanan, the bachelor president from 1857 to 1861, who sympathized with the south and loathed abolition. Ending slavery could wait. Of the supreme court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, Buchanan highly approved.

Also in Lancaster, King visits a townhouse once owned by Thaddeus Stevens, the 19th-century Republican congressman and radical abolitionist. At the start of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, viewed the conflict as the vehicle for preserving the Union. He opposed slavery but opposed secession more. For Stevens, slavery was an evil that demanded eradication.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, King describes how the ancestors of one town greeted Confederate troops as heroes while another just 20 miles away viewed them as a scourge. Forks in the road are everywhere.

King pays homage to the underground railroad, describing how the Mason-Dixon Line, the demarcation between north and south, free state and slave, came into being. Astronomy and borders had a lot to do with it. All of this emerges from the scenery and places King passes on his way.

Imagining George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, he delivers a lesson on how such rivers came to be named. Names affixed to bodies of water by Indigenous peoples gave way to Dutch pronunciation, then anglicization. The Delaware, however, derived its moniker from Lord De La Warr, a “dubious aristocrat” otherwise known as Thomas West.

Yet joy and wonder suffuse King’s tale. He smiles on the maker’s handiwork, uneven as it is. American Ramble depicts a stirring sunset and nightfall through the roof-window of a Quaker meeting house. Quiet stands at the heart of the experience. The here and now is loud and messy, but King ably conveys the silent majesty of the moment. The Bible recounts the Deity’s meeting with the prophet Elijah. He was not in the wind, a fire or an earthquake. Rather, He resided in a whisper.

The confluence of the Delaware River and Neshaminy Creek, in Croydon, Pennsylvania.Pin
The confluence of the Delaware River and Neshaminy Creek, in Croydon, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Jana Shea/Alamy

King recalls an earlier time in a Buddhist monastery. Warned that surrounding scenery would detract from solitude and commitment, he nevertheless succumbed. King is nothing if not curious.

The quotidian counts too. He pops cold beers, downs pizzas and snarfs chicken parmesan. A wanderer needs sustenance. He is grateful for the day following the night. Predictability is miraculous, at times invaluable.

King is a cancer survivor and a pilgrim. He is a husband and father, son and brother. Life’s fragility and randomness have left their mark. His malady is in remission but he moves like a man unknowing how long good fortune will last. His voice is a croak, a casualty of Lyme disease. He is restless. Life’s clock runs. He writes of how his brother Kevin lost his battle with a brain tumor.

King puts his head and heart on the page. His life story helps drive the narrative, a mixture of the personal, political and pastoral. But it is not only about him. He meets strangers who become friends, of a sort. At times, people treat him as an oddity – or simply an unwanted presence. More frequently, they are open if not welcoming. As his walk continues, word gets out. Minor celebrity results.

The author is awed by generosity, deprivation and the world. He is moved by a homeless woman and her daughter. Traversing the New Jersey Turnpike presents a near-insurmountable challenge. A mother and son offer him a kayak to paddle beneath the traffic. He accepts.

The near-impassable New Jersey Turnpike, in Elizabeth, New Jersey with the towers of New York City behind.Pin
The near-impassable New Jersey Turnpike, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with the towers of New York City behind. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters

A Colorado native, King is at home in the outdoors. Nature is wondrous and sometimes disturbing. Rough waters complicate his passages. He studies heaps on a landfill. He meets a New Jerseyan with pickup truck adorned by Maga flags. The gentleman bestows beer, snacks and jokes. King divides the universe into “anywheres” and “somewheres”. He puts himself in the first camp and finds placed-ness all around.

American Ramble captures the religious and demographic topography that marks the mid-Atlantic and north-eastern US. Here, dissenters, Anabaptists, German pietists, Presbyterians and Catholics first landed. King pays homage to their pieces of turf. His reductionism is gentle. He appreciates the legacy of what came before him. Landscapes change, human nature less so, even as it remains unpredictable.

“When I crossed the Delaware two days before,” he writes, “I had entered what I later came to call Presbyteriana, a genteel and horsey patch settled by Presbyterians and Quakers.” Princeton University stands at its heart.

E pluribus unum was tough to pull off when the settlers came. It may even be tougher now. King quotes Nick Rizzo, a denizen of Staten Island, New York City’s Trumpy outer borough: “We are losing our ability to forge any unity at all from these United States.”

Rizzo joined King along the way. In the Canterbury Tales, April stands as the height of spring. It was prime time for religious pilgrimages, “what with Chaucer and all, and it being April”, Rizzo explains.

“Strangers rose to the occasion to provide invaluable moments,” King writes. Amen.

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