Talking with Blythe Roberson

The hilarious author of America the Beautiful? names her favorite national park, shares road-trip playlists, and reveals how to avoid attracting bears.

blythe roberson

Quit your job. Fill the tank. Drive west until you reach the Pacific. Realizing this escapist fantasy is as American as apple pie, the stuff of legend—and literature.

There are only so many poems you can read about being free, only so many times you can listen to Joni Mitchell’s travel album, Hejira, before something inside you snaps. On January 17, 2019, Mary Oliver died, and I sat at my office desk ignoring my work to read her poem “Moments,” about actually living your life when you’re alive, about how the lamest thing you can possibly do is be cautious.
Fuck, I thought. I gotta quit my job. That was the moment I decided, and two months later I did. And then, as you legally must after quitting your job, I went on a Great American Road Trip.

These opening lines of Blythe Roberson’s riotously funny America the Beautiful? One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled serve to place her account within the road-trip category. But they’re a head fake: with them, she’s both nodding to the genre and bidding farewell to the traditions of the form. From here, she upends and subverts convention. For starters, she’s a young woman, traveling alone, in a borrowed Prius. Then there’s her obsession with visiting national parks and earning Junior Ranger badges. And pulling us along on interstates, roadways, and nature trails—from Wisconsin to Washington, down to Oregon and along the California coast, through the Southwest and north to Milwaukee—is a rare voice that is simultaneously funny, fresh, and vulnerable.

Alta Journal caught up with Roberson via email to discuss America the Beautiful? The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Join Blythe Roberson for Alta Live on May 24, at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.

How did you choose your route? Why drive west?
I knew when I quit my job that I wanted to go on a long road trip across the continent that put me in places which were the exact opposite of the office building in the middle of Manhattan where I went to work every day: I wanted to see badlands; I wanted to see deserts; I wanted mountains; I wanted charismatic megafauna. Following an “optimized national parks road trip” route—a route that gets you to all the national parks in the quickest way possible—seemed like the best way to do this. In the interest of time, I only visited parks where I had not yet earned a Junior Ranger badge (a plastic pin you get for completing an activity workbook—these are designed for small children, but I am obsessed with embezzling them from the United States government). Almost my entire trip took place west of the Mississippi. There are a lot of problematic reasons why most of the national parks are out West, and of course, maybe every white person driving west is chasing dreams of violent Anglo westward expansion even if they don’t think they are—but to be honest, I didn’t know much about any of that when I planned my trip.

At the outset, you’re aware that you’re undertaking the Great American Road Trip and that there may be certain conventions to follow—or upend. Did any particular books inspire you?
I had in mind a whole male canon of American travel narratives, like On the Road, Into the Wild, Travels with Charley. When I set out on my trip, the main question I had was: What does the female version of that kind of narrative look like? I personally loved some female travel narratives like Wild or Eat Pray Love, but it seemed to me like men were allowed to just set off on adventure for no reason, but for a woman to be going on a journey like this, she had to be healing from trauma. I didn’t want to heal! I just wanted to go on vacation.

What was your process for writing this book?
As I went through my trip, any chance I got, I tried to journal about what was happening to me. I journaled while waiting for my ferry to Isle Royale National Park to board, I journaled while eating bougie vegan food in Denver, I journaled in my car where I free-camped 45 minutes outside Zion National Park. I wrote notes to myself in my Notes app and left myself voice memos while driving. Basically, I don’t have an MFA and had never committed an act of journalism in my life, so I was frantically trying to find a way to remember as much as I could. When I got back, to flesh out my memories, I often looked back through my Instagram story archives to see what exactly I had thought was weird or pretty or funny enough to take a photo of.

How did you decide what experiences to keep and what to jettison? What is one encounter or incident that you wish you had kept in the final work?
Very, very stupidly, I didn’t ask my editor how long the book was supposed to be. When I finished the first draft, I emailed it to her and said, “It’s 150,000 words! How long should it be?” She replied, “75,000 words.” So I literally cut out half of the book, and I had to be brutal: basically, anything that didn’t make me laugh enough, went. There are so many scenes I miss, one of which involved the only time on my trip I was genuinely scared for my life, when I peed too close to my car while free-camping and then remembered that a friend of mine who worked at Yellowstone told me it’s very important to pee far away from camp because bears are attracted to the scent of human pee (perverts).

What song(s) might form a soundtrack for your journey?
I actually made four Spotify playlists to answer just this question, one for each section of the book: The Plains, The Intermountain West, The West Coast, and The Southwest. To highlight one song from the West Coast playlist that kind of represents the time I was around California, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” by Weyes Blood, parallels the thoughts I was having about how the American road trip is framed as this individual endeavor, but I was realizing that all the things I loved about my life and about being on the road—and the solutions to the problems I was seeing—related not to the individual but the collective. Also, it’s just a beautiful song, ha ha.

You encounter disappearing glaciers, the projected extinction of Joshua trees, and the Teddy Roosevelt giant sequoia being done in by climate change. How did these and other environmental calamities affect you?
It definitely struck me how ironic it was that I was traveling to these places because I love nature, but in order to get there, I was burning a full tank of fossil fuels almost every day. Actually, going to these places and seeing how imperiled they are—and these are the places that are more protected than any other land in the country—lit a fire under my ass and made me realize just how immediate the threat of climate change is in a way I didn’t before. As in, it’s happening now. So then I went home, read a bunch of books, couldn’t sleep, and sobbed a lot on the phone to my lover, who asked me to just stop reading The Uninhabitable Earth if it was going to make me more insane. (“That’s the coward’s route!” I told him, crying.) But I found that despair doesn’t really help anyone, so I’m looking for ways to actually make an impact in my community, like helping care for street trees.

Looking back, would you agree with Wallace Stegner’s famous statement, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”?

There’s a lot about the establishment of national parks that I didn’t know before my trip and don’t love—Mark David Spence writes in Dispossessing the Wilderness about how “uninhabited wilderness” didn’t exist in what is now the United States and had to be invented by removing Indigenous people and flagrantly ignoring their treaty rights to land so that white middle-class tourists could vacation to these places instead. So while it’s hard to separate out the origin stories of these places, as a person in the 21st century, I am happy this land is protected, and I will probably keep visiting national park sites until I am eaten by a bear who was attracted by the scent of my pee.

What was your favorite national park? Least favorite?
I really loved Redwood National and State Parks—I had always dreamed of seeing the redwoods and was so overwhelmed by the scale of the trees that I did actually cry (I was on hormonal birth control for the first time, too, so basically everything I saw was “too beautiful” and made me tear up). But having done almost no research before my trip, I had no idea that Redwood National and State Parks also had tide pools, and those just blew my mind. I spent a very happy hour all alone on the beach at a “secret spot” a ranger told me about, poking around looking at sea stars, trying not to get my entire ass hit by a wave.

My least favorite park was probably Hot Springs in Arkansas, an urban park that consists mostly of a line of historic bathhouses fed by a natural hot spring. I went there less because I thought it would be thrilling (it wasn’t) and more because it was directly on my route home from Big Bend National Park to Milwaukee, and it seemed like a dereliction of duty to skip it.

Any plans for another road trip?
As I answer these questions, I’m on a road-trip book tour! I’m doing a similar route to what I did in my book, but heading south first. So now I’m traveling through the Southwest in spring instead of what I did in my book: driving through the desert in the middle of July (I am an idiot).•

Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal's editorial director.
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