REVIEWED BY ANA MARIA SPAGNA
Full disclosure: I was predisposed to love Road Trip from the get-go. The title for one thing—I’ve never quite outgrown the romance of road tripping. Then there’s the fact that many of the fourteen essays in this debut collection are set in the North Cascades where I live while others are set in Flagstaff where I spent a few glorious winters in my late twenties. They’re about a whole range of topics I care about or know a little about or find fascinating: mountains, yes, of course, plus running (the sprint, not the slog), trombone music, long trails, short rappels, stray dogs, nurse logs, loose teeth, Alzheimer’s disease, Little Feat, Johnny Cash, Pearl Jam and the holiness of dirt.
One surprising common denominator I find among people who are passionate about the mountains is that we were often raised with religion or went through a religious phase or studied religion in college. Maybe that’s true of Americans in general, but it seems to me the whole “the mountains are my church” trope is less an excuse not to go to an actual church – the way I’d fake a fever as a kid – and more a way trying to explain a deep connection. It’s a hard thing to do, to meld a fondness for words like “sacred” and “holy” with the sheer reckless joy of being out there, on the road or on the trail or on the end of a rope dangling, but Mark Rozema pulls it off.
His essays are humble, honest, insightful, and, like the best essays on any topic, but especially ones tinged with spirituality, they are aren’t too sure about any one thing. They’re spiced with litanies of “maybe.” Which is, well, a blessing.
They’re also funny. In “Earworm,” Rozema describes wildflowers, waterfalls, tarns and talus, in vivid prose, then promptly interrupts with a tirade on how a particular song—from the Sound of Music no less—gets stuck in his head. Fair warning: As soon as you start reading it’ll be in your head, too. The story builds until the culminating moment when in total exasperation he imagines shoving an unsuspecting nun off a cliff.
When he brings in the spiritual, it’s often in sly metaphors. He describes layers of rock strata, for example, like “a list of begats.” After allowing himself the rare luxury of a paragraph of plain earnest reflection, he always comes quickly back to earth. Gambel oak, subalpine fir, Stika spruce Chilliwack, Colchuck, Chugach. I once heard Rick Bass say proper nouns are like the rocks in a stream; they give prose its character. There’s plenty of character here.
Finally, as in the best collections, the essays build one on the next. Toward the end, we get “Eye Contact” on connections among people, messy and tender, and “Crossing the Distance” where he recalls, as a young man, eagerly attending a Christian revival only to find “self-righteousness and—there is no other word for it—malice.”
“There are people in life who have no regrets,” Rozema concludes, “I’m not one of them, but it pays to have sense of humor about such things….Here’s to journeys that never end, infinite digressions, incremental progress, and frequent fuckups along the road to freedom.”
That right there? That’s my kind of preaching.
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington, a remote community in the North Cascades. She is the author of the nonfiction narrative Reclaimers, the story of people reclaiming sacred land and water, as well as the memoir/history Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and two collections of essays, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and Now Go Home, a Seattle Times Best Book of 2004. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications including Orion, Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, and High Country News.