A BOLD NEW KIND OF COLLEGE COURSE BRINGS the student directly to the past, nonstop, overnight, in squalor and glory, for weeks on end
O Public Road … you express me better than I can express myself. ” I first read Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass , as an Ohio schoolboy. The great democratic chant struck me hard, a lightning bolt of simple, authoritative words proclaiming that only in motion do people have the chance to turn dreams into reality. Even as a fourteen-yearold I already suspected this.
O Public Road … you express me better than I can express myself. ” I first read Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass , as an Ohio schoolboy. The great democratic chant struck me hard, a lightning bolt of simple, authoritative words proclaiming that only in motion do people have the chance to turn dreams into reality. Even as a fourteen-year-old I already suspected this. After all, my favorite reading, be it Jack London’s Alaska stories, Mark Twain’s Mississippi River tales, or Jack Kerouac’s highway antics, had adventurous escape as a subplot. What sense did it make to be trapped in Perrysburg Junior High School reading Huckleberry Finn when the white bass were running in the Maumee River? If Huck had the good common sense to discover his river, then why shouldn’t I be exploring along the banks of mine? As London wrote in John Barleycorn about his own youth, “I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew.” Although this was obviously an immature perspective on what constituted an education, it is also true that I learned more about American history by taking a field trip to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, than in a traditional classroom setting.
In large part my parents are to be thanked for planting in me the impetuous travel bug of history. Every summer of my childhood we hitched our cream-colored Coachman trailer, the “Buckeye Buggy,” to our Pontiac station wagon and took off on an eightweek odyssey. The objective: to learn about our American heritage.
Instead of sunning on Florida’s crowded beaches or waiting in line to see Walt Disney World’s robotic attractions, we would tour Civil War battlefields or visit historic homes like James Monroe’s Ash Lawn and Helen KeIler’s Ivy Green. On those summer journeys it was the sheer sensation of traveling down the open road, absorbing visual poetry out the rear window of our station wagon, that electrified my youthful soul; the destination was secondary. Mornings, I could hardly wait for the Buckeye Buggy to be packed up and unhooked so that we could flee the campground for unknown and unimagined topography.
Odd as it may sound, my obsessive hobby on these trips became snapping color photographs of historic gravesites. Arlington National Cemetery was a bonanza, for this was the final resting spot for scores of my heroes, including President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Dashiell Hammett, William Jennings Bryan, and Gus Grissom. Another favorite was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, where on Author’s Ridge lie the graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts. During college I continued this hobby abroad, visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where such notable Americans as Judah Benjamin, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Wright are buried. One afternoon while backpacking in Surrey, England, I sat by the grave of Bret Harte and read his short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” aloud for only the birds to hear.
The homes of former Presidents were always my favorite family destinations. In Independence, Missouri, I remember how we peered at Harry Truman’s North Delaware Street Victorian house and wished that the former President were still alive to guide us through his town. We imagined him as an old man ambling down the sidewalk at dusk, his “Open Road” Stetson firmly atop his head, cane in hand, saying neighborly hellos, and thinking back to when Missouri was part of the virgin West.
When I look back at these family excursions, it seems they not only afforded me a unique educational opportunity but permanently afflicted me with a healthy dose of American restlessness. During high school Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” confirmed my hunch that all Americans have one common attribute: movement. All our ancestors had made the arduous immigrant or chattel journey, and even the Indians, we were taught, were nomadic people. “Have bags will travel” was our national motto, whether uttered by Dean Moriarty, Willy Loman, or Black Jack Pershing. It has been said of Daniel Boone that when he heard the sound of a neighbor’s rifle, he moved on, for he knew civilization was encroaching. Life in America was so different from life in Europe, where people tolerated a circumscribed existence under the constant scrutiny of the community. Americans had to feel sorry for foreigners who did not understand open space, who were not blessed with the psychological outlet Turner called “The Frontier Valve.” In America it seemed only village idiots, town drunks, and farmers clung to the hamlets of their origin.
Emerson once asked an entire generation to define what constituted the distinctive American character. To me, it boils down to three words: optimism, action, and energy. The individual who most instinctively resonated to this trinity was an action addict with incredible optimism who, even confined to a wheelchair, spent weeks at sea every year. I am referring to the greatest politician of this century, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For my own generation—like so many that preceded it—it seemed clear that the key to success in America was to keep moving in pursuit of the future. We moved out of family homes and into college dormitories, then on to starter jobs and first apartments. We relocated where opportunity presented itself, and if we failed, small matter. Forgiveness is part of our national character: America, the land of the second chance. However calamitous our mistakes, we can always get new haircuts and move to Phoenix.
All this was swirling around my mind when I began creating a new kind of course at Hofstra University in 1992. With universities being run like failing businesses and the art of teaching often considered antiquated, it seemed important to inject the joy of learning back into the college curriculum. I wanted my students to experience our country the way I had as a fortunate boy. A solution that appealed to my sense of adventure was to abandon the classroom altogether and take to the open road in a fortyfoot-long sleeper coach with my students. I would teach America’s history and literature as we went, and my students would earn credit reading Flannery O’Connor in Georgia, Willa Cather in Nebraska, Sinclair Lewis in Minnesota, and Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes everywhere. Instead of fidgeting in a Long Island classroom reading about the civil rights movement, we would visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery; hold political seminars on Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and his crypt in Atlanta; discuss the African-American struggle with Amiri Baraka in Newark and Morris Dees in Montgomery. The challenge was to turn a bus into a classroom and learn about our nation at the close of the twentieth century. Instead of merely studying America, we would grab it by the scruff of the neck. I called the course “American Odyssey.”
My motto for creating it came from Davy Crockect:: “Be always sure you’re right—then go ahead.” I was pretty sure I was right; in any event I certainly went ahead. Every year since 1992 I’ve taken to the open road on the “Majic Bus” —spelled with a “j” to avoid a copyright clash with “The Who,” the British rock group with a hit song by that title—in the program now based at the University of New Orleans. Hundreds of students continually inquire about how they can apply for the course. I work my way through all the requests and select twenty students to hop aboard the Majic Bus. Usually the level of enthusiasm apparent in the letters rather than the grade-point average is the deciding factor in who rides.
On the first Majic Bus journey students earned six credits, the equivalent of two classes over forty-five days. They now earn twelve credits for participation in four classes over eighty days with different course offerings each year. The courses I taught for the 1994 trip were: “History of the Civil Rights Movement,” “Road Literature from Whitman to Kerouac,” “American Social History,” and “American Intellectual History.” My students came from seven schools: the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, Yale University, American University, Haskell Indian Nations University, Kenyon College, and the University of Virginia. Along the road we would stop at these universities to meet with faculty, hold discussion groups, and exchange information—and do laundry. At Haskell, in Lawrence, Kansas, for instance, we participated in Native American political forums and attended a special cedar-burning ceremony at the Medicine Wheel. The Majic Bus seemed to arouse particular interest on Indian reservations because we were powered by natural gas.
The idea of having the Majic Bus run on an almost pollution-free alternative fuel came to me in 1993 as my class was departing Jack London’s ranch in Glen Ellen, California. We were headed north on Highway 1, slowly working our way up the Pacific Coast toward Fairbanks, Alaska. Of all America’s natural wonders, the colossal old-growth redwoods of Northern California have always struck me as the most awesome. John Steinbeck called them our “great cathedrals,” “ambassadors from another time.”
As our bus groaned up the Avenue of the Giants, dwarfed by three-hundred-foot-tall trees on both sides of the two-lane road, it seemed criminal to be coughing black tailpipe exhaust into the pristine ancient forest. The sad fact is that a hundred and thirty years of logging has eliminated 95 percent of California’s giant coastal redwoods; so few thousand-year-old trees remain that park rangers in the Pacific Northwest call the survivors by name. As I got to know Sleeping Giant, Flatiron, and Sneaky Pete myself, I decided to find a way for the Majic Bus to become as close to pollution-free as possible.
After doing research on alternative fuels—electric, solar, hydrogen, soybean—I realized that natural gas was the most practical and clean-burning. The U.S. Department of Energy flooded me with information extolling its virtues: Natural gas produces up to 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 66 percent less reactive hydrocarbons than gasoline. The Columbia Gas Company of Ohio embraced the Majic Bus wholeheartedly, not only providing the technology to go “Clean Across America” but arranging free fuel for us in forty states. With the additional support of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, the Majic Bus has traveled twenty-two thousand miles down back alleys and multi-lane superslabs in search of our national heritage. Abandoning petroleum is a decision I’ve regretted only once, when we had trouble finding a pipeline to tap into in Montana.
The Majic Bus was specially painted for the 1994 voyage by a talented bunch of teenaged students who participate in a downtown New Orleans nonprofit arts and social organization called Young Artists/Young Aspirations. The mission of YA/YA is to provide career opportunities to help artistically gifted inner-city youth become professionally self-sufficient. Over the years YA/YA students have worked and exhibited in New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Milan. YA/YA murals grace New Orleans with flashy style and biting humor, often with an inyour-face message about American history or culture.
My only instruction to the YA/YA students for painting the Maiic Bus was that the theme should be “Discovering America Through Travel.” During the muggy July before our mid-August departure, the YA/YA kids would show up each day with cartoonish pop sketches tucked under their arms, ready to transform the bus’s metallic mundaneness into a mural exploding in fluorescent color. As the departure date neared, the YA/YAs went into artistic overdrive, painting in blinding blues and Day-Glo yellows epigraphs like William Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” and Bob Dylan’s “He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying.” Witty visions of road life like floating pizza slices and flying hot dogs mixed with rolling ribbons of pink highway drifting over a distant horizon. Mount Rushmore was painted with African-American heroes replacing the Presidents. All across America people would circle the Majic Bus in obvious delight.
Blaine Kern, proprietor of the world’s largest float-building company, who is known locally as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” was enthusiastic about my educational program and allowed me to store the now-customized Majic Bus in his five-hundred-thousand-square-foot warehouse. There it rested among hundreds of carnival floats awaiting Mardi Gras, when tractors pull them out of hiding for Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, Zulu, and some forty other spectacular parades throughout the city.
Meanwhile my students arrived at the University of New Orleans well read and antsy for their 3-D American Studies course on wheels to begin. An extensive reading list had been mailed to them months earlier, and most had gone ravenously through essential books from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery , from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple .
The first week of “American Odyssey” was held in New Orleans, the students getting to know one another and discovering the intermingled cultural influences of the Crescent City. Each misty morning I conducted lectures on the theater of Tennessee Williams over beignets at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter or on the jazz legacy of Louis Armstrong beside his statue in Congo Square, one of the few spots on the continent during the eighteenth century where African-Americans were allowed to gather, make music, and dance. Since going to the source of history is what the Majic Bus is all about, what better place to lecture on the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 than in the Cabildo at Jackson Square, where the transfer from France to the United States of 827,000 square miles for fifteen million dollars took place? Where better to speak about the War of 1812 than a few miles downriver at the Chalmette National Historic Park, site of the Battle of New Orleans?
Guest speakers were omnipresent during our New Orleans week. Ishmael Reed came from California to talk with students about his books Mumbo Jumbo and Airing Dirty Laundry , former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs spoke about Louisiana politics, and the social commentator Andrei Codrescu gave a special showing of his film Road Scholar . We took a literary walking tour of the French Quarter; a Bayou Segnette excursion to spot alligators, nutrias, and cypress trees dripping Spanish moss; heard a sobering symposium about David Duke and a heartening seminar on Asian immigrants with the Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Robert Olen Butler. The three-deck sternwheeler Natchez took us down the Mississippi; Bo Diddley led a Delta blues seminar and demonstrated his “hambone” beat, imitated by countless lesser acts. Each night we were treated to superb music by the likes of Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, Clarence (“Frogman”) Henry, and Townes Van Zandt. As a sendoff for the students, “Mr. Mardi Gras” threw a Dixieland jazz parade that roistered down Decatur Street to the House of Blues, where it became a doubloontossing street party. A Sunday gospel brunch followed, the soulful notes of the white-suited Zion Harmonizers mixing with spicy Creole fare.
The guest escort on the Majic Bus during our pre-excursion week was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, perhaps the only person alive who can sing and strum on his weathered Gibson the entire Carl Sandburg American Songbook . The famous troubadour has put John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to music, performed rope tricks in the rodeo, and sings the world’s most boisterous version of Jesse (“Lone Cat”) Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” The students had read Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory and were eager to discuss the autobiography with the peppery Jack. With his cowboy hat perfectly affixed and his sixstring never more than a foot from his boot heel, Jack related hard traveling yarns about his buddy Woody, whom he first met at Coney Island in 1947.
As we prepared the bus for departure, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, in his Shaker-plain voice, sang “This Land Is Your Land.” With the refrain lingering on our lips, and our bellies full of jambalaya and po’ boy sandwiches, we pulled out of the city of New Orleans and on to the rest of America. For the most part, every- one had kept to the rule of one suitcase plus sleeping bag and pup tent per person. Musical instruments, laptop computers, and sports equipment were also allowed, and there were so many paperback classics aboard that at times onlookers mistook us for a bookmobile. Besides reading fifty books, half of them before departure, the students were responsible for keeping daily journals and taking five essay exams at various stops during the journey. Over the years I have given tests in neon casinos and cheap motels, Nathan Male’s schoolhouse and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Group meals have been cooked over Wyoming campfires, in 7-Eleven microwaves, and for Bronx homeless shelters.
The route varies annually. New historical destinations are added to the itinerary, as are local festivals like Fairmount Museum Days Remembering James Dean in Fairmount, Indiana, and the Literary Renaissance Insomniacathon in Louisville, Kentucky, which were last-minute additions to the 1994 excursion. Flexibility is the governing ethic. As the teacher on the Majic Bus, I find it essential not to become creatively stagnant or structured to the degree of losing spontaneity for convenience’s sake. There is an Outward Bound quality to “American Odyssey,” a belief that character is built through individual struggle and collective sharing. Roughing it is a requirement, part of the education in self-reliance. The single most important rule for the course, the one that cannot be broken, is posted on the front of the Majic Bus: “No Whining Allowed.”
As Wynton Marsalis’s version of “Flight of the Bumble-bee” soared from the speakers, the students positioned their sleeping bags on the floor of the bus for their first night on the road. With our driver, Frank Perugi, alias Neil Cassady, at the wheel, we experienced the quiet, humming camaraderie of the highway at night that is so much a part of Thomas Wolfe’s America. One by one we drifted off to sleep with the whoosh of trucks passing in the darkness, an occasional horn, and the rattle of loose metal.
At dawn we woke up in Hope, Arkansas, in front of Bill Clinton’s first home, a mere shack in a state of rickety disrepair. We had been invited for the President’s forty-eighth birthday celebration, as a highly publicized visit to help promote the restoration of the Clinton homestead. After groggily stumbling off the bus to wolf down jelly doughnuts and hot coffee provided by a local women’s club, the students went to work pulling out rotted floorboards, scraping paint from the walls, and sweeping out piles of shattered glass. The second-floor bedroom at 117 South Hervey, where Clinton spent his first four years, was little more than a broom closet.
As a reward for our morning labor, we spent the afternoon at the Hope Watermelon Festival, not only inspecting the prize fruit of Arkansas but participating in speed-eating and seed-spitting contests. Hope, for good reason, is considered the watermelon capital of the world. Back in 1935, we learned, a Hope farmer brought in the largest melon on record, weighing a whopping 195 pounds. In 1991 the Bright family grew a 230-pounder. A local farmer named Pod Rogers told us, “I took a picture of them melons one time and the negative alone weighed ten pounds.”
The Clinton home cleanup was the first of many such projects we embarked on along the road. We were to be given so much throughout the journey that we wanted to give something in return. In the spirit of George Bush’s “A Thousand Points of Light,” my students planted trees like a pack of roving Johnny Appleseeds, worked in ghetto soup kitchens, picked up litter along Highway 61, and participated in a five-day house-building project with Habitat for Humanity in Americus, Georgia, where we all talked with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter over a breaded catfish supper. Doing community work and learning of the work of others both helped us better understand our nation and created a bond between the students.
Our day in Little Rock, Arkansas, is a good illustration of the Majic Bus approach to social history. En route to the capital we collectively read Maya Angelou’s less than idyllic view of her state:
I followed our reading with an impromptu lecture about Johnny Cash, the man with the sepulchral voice, who grew up during the Great Depression in the hardscrabble Arkansas cotton town of Dyess. Arriving in Little Rock, we stopped by Doe’s Eat Place to pick up Melba Pattillo Beals, the most outspoken of the nine black teenagers chosen to integrate Central High School in 1957. The students had been assigned her searing memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry .
Ms. Beals had flown in from San Francisco to give us a tour of the massive concrete high school—it resembles a state prison—which she had refused to enter for decades. She showed us the precise spot where, when she was fifteen years old, acid was thrown in her face, the stairs she was shoved down, the water fountain where she was kicked for daring to take a drink. She spoke to us about courage under pressure, the price one pays for justice, and what it was like to receive daily death threats just for going to school. It is impossible to express how much we learned from Ms. Beals. The students, overcome with anger and sorrow and hope, thanked her for her bravery in being a trailblazer on our road toward national equality.
A lighter example of how the Majic Bus experience can teach students to break the shackles of closed-mindedness occurred during a country-music seminar we held in Riverside, California, with Waylon Jennings. Myron Crockett, an African-American student from the University of New Orleans, despised the entire genre of country music, which he considered “redneck garbage.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him that Hank Williams and George Jones were worth listening to, he staunchly refused. But when Myron met Waylon Jennings, dressed smartly in black cowboy wear, his attitude began to change. Speaking earnestly to us about his early years as a member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, his later musical partnership with Willie Nelson, and his own million bus miles logged over the seamless years of plucking tunes on the C&W circuit, Waylon won Myron over. Half in jest, Myron asked Waylon if he would play one of his original compositions, “The Dukes of Hazzard” television theme song, at his concert that evening. Waylon, who had kindly put us on his guest list, said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
A little while later we yelled with delight from our front-row seats when Waylon pointed at Myron, dedicated the song to him, then launched into a rousing guitar version of it. Myron was a Waylonhead from that moment on, playing his new country music hero’s Greatest Hits CD on the Majic Bus stereo.
We made special visits to America’s living classrooms—our magnificent national parks—rejuvenating our souls with nature hikes and often spending the night under the stars. “National Parks are the best idea we ever had,” the author Wallace Stegner noted. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best.” Stegner was right on the mark.
Nature provided unforgettable experiences throughout the Majic Bus journey. In the middle of an Alaskan road, during a springtime snowstorm, we were stared down by a stubborn moose. We watched Mojave wildflowers bloom before our eyes as endangered desert tortoises craned their necks in search of lunch. Colorful horned puffins fed along the rocky coastal cliffs of Glacier Bay, and wild boar roamed in packs in the subtropical beauty of the West Pearl River.
It is impossible to relate in the compass of a single article all our experiences during the three-month “American Odyssey.” Indeed it’s difficult even to extract “course highlights,” for each adventure in our educational journey proved seminal. Some of the most memorable encounters along the road were with authors whose works the students had read beforehand: Toni Morrison and Jay Mclnerney in New York City, Kurt Vonnegut in East Hampton, Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen, T. Coraghessan Boyle in Santa Barbara, Allen Ginsberg in Lowell, William Kennedy in Albany, Larry Woiwode in North Dakota, Hubert Selby, Jr., in Los Angeles, Rita Dove in Charlottesville, Maya Angelou in Illinois, Jim Carroll in Louisville, Studs Terkel in Chicago, Arthur Miller in Connecticut. The list goes on and on. We often met at the writer’s home, which added an intimacy unimaginable in the traditional English class. There is something transcendent about Ken Kesey showing you the Oregon desk where he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Chuck Berry letting you touch the St. Louis guitar on which he composed “Johnny B. Goode,” and John Kenneth Galbraith allowing you to browse his home library in Cambridge.
To experience great American literature, we made pilgrimages to Henry David Thoreau’s Waiden Pond. Nelson Algren’s Chicago, William Faulkner’s Oxford, Robert Frost’s New England, and John Steinbeck’s Salinas. During 1994 the Majic Bus visited Jack Kerouac’s Lowell to hear an all-night candlelight reading of Mexico City Blues and On the Road . At the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side we entered a poetry “slam,” with one of the Majic Bus students winning second place. Instead of just touring Walt Whitman’s birthplace near Huntington, we held a daylong seminar inside the small saltbox cottage with the poet Robert Bly. Bly, a teacher of genius, is able to make Whitman’s grandiosity wholly contemporary. Refusing to have us just read Leaves of Grass , Bly took us on a collective journey deep inside such poems as “The Learned Astronomer,” which explains to perfection the pedagogy of “American Odyssey.”
American popular culture is taken seriously on the Majic Bus. Whether it’s a lecture on Parson Weems’s George Washington given on the banks of the Rappahanock River, whence the myth of the first President’s silver-dollar throwing feat emanated, or spending an uproarious afternoon in Hollywood with the legendary cartoonists William Hanna and Joseph Barbera learning how Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear were conceived, popular culture proved a vital line of inquiry in our quest to understand the essence of America. We toured the International District in Seattle, ascertaining the importation of everything from karate to ginseng, and we visited the grave of the actor Bruce Lee, the first nonstereotypical Asian-American celluloid hero. In Chicago we took a Gangster Tour, which explored the murderous careers of Big Jim Colosimo, Dion O’Banion, and Al Capone, the early architects of modern organized crime. When we heard that a baby white buffalo had been born on a Wisconsin farm, the Majic Bus veered northward from Chicago to pay homage to the prophetic animal that many Native Americans consider sacred. Comic books and pinball machines, television and baseball, McDonald’s and Wal-Marts are given the same close scrutiny as the canon classics, for like the greatest works of literature, they provide an essential vantage point from which to peer into defining aspects of our collective culture. Every year Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and other, more offbeat roadside attractions are favorite spots. Bigfoot and jackalopes, Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan all tell us about ourselves. Like archeologists on a dig, we exit interstates to unearth forgotten stretches of old Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway. Stopping for breakfast at greasy grills, we hear locals recall a time when drifters and families alike headed westward to our last great promised land. Today, like chunks from the Berlin Wall, pieces of these great abandoned roads are sold in plastic packets by clever children making a buck.
The hardest part of “American Odyssey” is the return. After we’ve shared so many compelling experiences, goodbyes don’t come easily. But life goes on—and goes on enriched by all the lessons learned, risks taken, books read, tolerance acquired, minds opened, memories captured, curiosity piqued, and joy embraced. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said of our enterprise, “The Majic Bus redis- covers our America, and the end of all our ‘On the Road’s is to recognize ourselves for the first time.”