A Road Trip Along the Mexican-American Border

A man sets out on a journey towards understanding physical and cultural divides.


| September 2015


Border Odyssey (University of Texas Press, 2015) takes readers on a drive toward understanding the U.S./Mexican border. Author Charles D. Thompson Jr. traverses barriers and roadblocks, chronicling his conversations with ordinary people, activists, border officials and anyone else who will answer his questions. In this excerpt, Thompson contemplates two words of two writers who influenced his travels.

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John Steinbeck’s books about agricultural workers, including The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men, have been seminal to my understanding of farm work. But his book Travels with Charley, a tale of his cross-country trip with his dog, is the one that most helped me understand my odyssey. He went on his journey, he said, because he felt distant from this country. Though he had worked as a farmworker advocate and written dozens of works that captured the 1930s as well as anyone, Steinbeck said he was out of touch. Without travel, writing dies, he said.

Steinbeck wrote, “An American writer, writing about America” needs to soak in more than one can learn from “books and newspapers.” A writer has to get moving. Though he had traveled much while young, he had lately lived too much in one place. “I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass, the trees, the sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. . . . In short, I was writing about something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”

In 1962, Steinbeck left in his truck “Rocinante” to see the country. Rounding the West and heading south to Louisiana, he drove directly into the land of blatant racism. There he picked up a hitchhiker who spewed epithets. Steinbeck stopped and made him get out, and the man screamed “Nigger lover” at him as he drove away. Steinbeck would continue through the South, ending his sojourn at Abingdon, Virginia, near where I grew up.






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