On the Road Again

"A roadtrip across time and space"

"A roadtrip across time and space." Image generation by Mark Riechers/Midjourney, based on work by Dino Reichmuth(CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
July 01, 2023

Now that road trip season is upon us, we take a deep look at the open road. We’ll talk with interstate long-haulers, join an elephant named Solomon on his journey across 16th century Europe, and take the “blackest road trip ever.” And Manal al-Sharif tells the story of her radical road trip — being a Saudi woman who learned how to drive.

Big trucks

Finn Murphy talks about his career as a long-haul driver who moves people's possessions across the country.

cover of "The Negro Travelers' Green Book"

Lawrence Ross delved into the "Green Book," a 1957 handbook to help black motorists find safe stops along the highway, and used it to shape a contemporary road trip that celebrated black history, culture, and business.

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman — author of the fantasy classic "His Dark Materials" — is clearly attuned to the imaginative world of children. So maybe it’s not surprising that the book that exerted such a pull on his own imagination was "The Pocket Atlas of the World," which he first encountered at the age of nine.

Manal al-Sharif

Manal al-Sharif on how the most transgressive thing a Saudi woman could do was learn to drive.

"The Elephant's Journey" by Julie Schumacher

"Dear Committee Members" author Julie Schumacher recommends Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago's retelling of a true tale.

Magic Kingdom

John Jeremiah Sullivan reads an abridged version of his essay, "You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!" about getting high at Disney World.


Show Details 📻
July 01, 2023
June 08, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Do you remember the first time you felt the call of the road?

- I was at Colby College, which is one of these Ivy covered liberal arts schools.

- Long haul trucker, Finn Murphy.

- My parents and I were walking down this leafy walkway, somebody's playing guitar under a tree and there's a couple kids throwing Frisbee, and I said, I'm not coming back here. I'm going to sign up with North American Van Lines and I'm gonna become a driver. My father, who had never gone to college, and that was the one thing he didn't accomplish in his life, he said, "You've done three years here, just one more year. "Why don't you just come back and finish?" And I said, "Because I'm afraid "it's gonna finish me off first." When we got home, he actually gave me a bill for three years tuition, which he expected me to pay back. I looked at it and I was shocked. I couldn't believe that he was doing this. And I flung it back at him and I cursed at him, and he looked at me and he said, "Don't use that language in my house." And I said, "I'm not gonna use anything in your house." And I picked up my duffel bag, walked out of the house and went down the street to where my truck was parked. It was to be my first day as a truck driver And my parents and I didn't speak for two years.

- Everybody loves the road, but some people love it more than others. Finn Murphy found his career and his calling on America's highways. He's the author of "The Long Haul: "A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road." And the first thing he told Steve Paulson is that he's not just any driver with a big rig, he's a long haul mover or as truckers say, a bed bugger.

- We've got bed buggers, those are the movers. You've got the live animal haulers, those are the chicken chokers. You've got the flat beds, those are the skateboarders. You've got the hazardous material people, Those are the suicide jockeys. Yeah, so everybody's got a nickname.

- And when you say you move people or you move families, I mean, what you're saying is you load all of their stuff, you load their lives into the back of your truck.

- Yes, and we pack their lives. I mean, the moves I do now, people don't lift their fingers. As more or less typical example, I had one few months ago, a man was moving to Vancouver from Connecticut. We walked in, my crew of seven movers and myself, he finished his coffee, he loaded his family into the limousine, they took off to the airport and we washed the dishes, stripped the beds, packed every single carton, loaded the truck, put his car in the truck. And then at the other end, we unpacked everything, put his dishes back in the break front, made his beds. This is full service move. These things cost, 70, $80,000.

- I'll say full service. My God, you even wash the dishes.

- Sure, why not?

- What about life on the road? Do you like that?

- Well, it's more comfortable now than it used to be. The trucks are better. I've got a nice brand new sleeper in the back. I've got a Sealy Posturepedic mattress, I've got 600 count sheets in the sleeper. I've got a feather duvet and I've got a microwave oven, a refrigerator, a desk. It's actually very nice.

- You do not sleep in motels, in other words. I mean, you sleep in your truck.

- Most of the time. If I sleep in a motel, if I have to spend a few days or something like that But there's no reason to. My truck is cleaner than most motels and it's certainly cheaper. And my mini bar has Gatorade in it and it's not eight bucks. So yes, I sleep in the truck.

- So I'm curious about what life on the road looks like from the trucker's perspective. Any of us who have driven cars on a highway, with their trucks whizzing by us. And I guess I'm wondering, is there anything we should know about what you do or about what trucks are like as we're driving by? I mean, what don't we see in your life or in your rig?

- Well, let's start with what we do see, because we see everything that people do in their cars.

- You're checking us out.

- Absolutely everything. So if you've driven by a truck driving a car and you've been in the passenger seat, if you noticed, you look up at the truck at the driver, and then he looks back at you. So that happens every time. It's some kind of telepathy thing. I don't know the how that happens, but I know when somebody's looking at me.

- And do you like that? I mean, is that meaningful at all, that moment of eye contact?

- It can be, it depends on what people are doing. Sometimes you have the kids doing the arm thing so that you hit the air horn. Sometimes you just have somebody look up and you could see they're sort of wistfully looking over and wondering, like, your question is, what kind of life is that up there with that guy? So that's nice. I guess what I was saying about we can see everything, what people do in their cars is most people are usually doing something else in addition to driving. You wanna know what the main events are that people do in their cars. People are eating, people are spilling liquids.

- Really, it happens that often?

- Oh yeah. It's not just Houston. They're disciplining the kids in the backseat. They're texting and putting on makeup. But here's the number one activity for American drivers is they are working on their relationship with the person in the passenger seat. And you can tell that from the body language, from the index fingers, from the shrugs. There's a lot of romances being worked out here. Mostly it looks like there's some conflict. Every once in a while you get to see a romantic moment that's not in conflict, which is very pleasant but also very rare.

- It sounds like you are kind of writing the novel in your mind, what's going on in that car as you drive by.

- Yeah, that's correct, I am. And I'm also writing the novel when I'm going through communities and towns and start thinking about what's changed in terms of community character, what's changed in terms of what's going on in America?

- Does the country look different now? Has America changed?

- So there is the denuding or the hollowing out of downtowns all over the country. You might think that it's just happened to your town or Joe Smith might think it only happened to his town but this has happened in 15,000 towns around the United States. The core districts are denuded of locally owned stores and then all the new commercial development is in the big boxes on the outskirts. I don't think that's good for community character, I don't think that's good for sense of place, I don't think it's good for middle class jobs that were there, that are no longer there. That's one big change that I've seen for sure. And then another big change is how the heartland, the Midwest from say, yeah, St. Louis to San Bernardino... I mean, there's nothing in the middle of the country anymore. It's a corn monoculture and there's no towns at all.

- That was not the case when you were first driving?

- No, so this was in 1980. It had begun, but no, that wasn't the case. There was all sorts of vibrant towns along U.S. Route 6, goes from Cape Cod to San Francisco, US Route 50 goes through Kansas, Garden City, Kansas, places like that. These used to be very vibrant small communities. And there was one after another, after another, after another, and it's all gone. I don't know where it went. I don't know how it went that way, but it's done.

- Hmm, so is this a beautiful country to you or not? From what you're saying and maybe it's less beautiful than it used to be.

- Well that's, it depends on the day, Steve. So I do have a passage in there where I got really sort of dark and cynical. I think I said something to the effect of, if you wanted to do a tourist poster of the United States, instead of doing a Vermont church with a white spire, why don't we do the real thing, which is a convenience store with a subway franchise inside and an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and outside somebody's holding a piece of cardboard saying anything helps. That's true. And it's not all the truth, the entire truth, but that is part of the truth. And yes, is it beautiful? In many, many, many places it is. As I said, I think that New Jersey Turnpike is beautiful. I also think the Rocky Mountains are beautiful. I don't think replacing every truck stop restaurant with a Subway franchise is particularly beautiful.

- You also say that there are moments that are just total adrenaline rushes, like driving into New York City. You have a great passage in your book where you describe what this is like, going into New York City. Could you read that?

- I would love to read that. So here we go.

- Okay.

- "Coming into Metro New York from points West or South "has always supercharged me, "but doing it in a big truck is pure adrenaline. "This is the closest I've ever come "to feeling the true essence of life on the road. "I've got a hard muscled body, "a big comfortable new tractor "hauling a 53 foot moving trailer, "grooving with my killer sound system, "a 30 ounce Dr. Cola in the holder. "Then there's the whistle of the supercharger, "as I shift into 13th gear, the whoosh of the air dryer, "my mouth slightly sour, "arms shaking from the pounding of the wheel, "making money, setting my own schedule, "the Manhattan skyline on my right, "flying fast and furious on my way up "to home plate in Connecticut. "Me and the monster truck are hurdling through "16 lanes of the most intense, dangerous, "and exhilarating piece of roadway ever devised by man. "And I'm the king of it all with my truck, my tunes, "and my big independence. "All the stories, the longings, the dreams, "the books, the movies, the songs, "the great American dream of chucking it all "and hitting the road. "Well, right at this moment, I am the song."

- That is fantastic.

- Thank you.

- Kerolak in a truck.

- But I have more focus. I'm actually going somewhere and I'm actually paying my own bills.

- Finn Murphy's book is called "The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road." He was talking with Steve Paulson. ♪ Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh ♪ Writer, Lawrence Ross found an old guidebook recently that inspired him to take what he calls the Blackest road trip ever. He drove 3000 miles from LA where he lives to Roanoke, Virginia. And along the way he challenged himself to stop only at African-American owned hotels, restaurants and gas stations, and to use this 1957 field book as a guide. ♪ I'm gonna buy me a Mercury ♪ ♪ And cruise it up and down the road ♪

- Charles Monroe-Kane was Enchanted.

- Well, first, what a cool thing to do.

- Oh, yeah. I mean it's one of those things where you kind of have this idea, wow, I'm gonna be traveling across the country anyway, so why not turn it into something a little bit special.

- So one thing extraordinary you did of course, was you did it based on a book, a book I've never heard of. What is this "Green Book?"

- Originally it was called "The Negro Motorist Green Book." And it was done by a man named Victor Green, a New York City postal worker, who saw that there was a need for a travel guide for African-Americans during segregation. The whole idea was that African-Americans couldn't just hit the road just, like anyone else. Up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, any public accommodation could say, "No, we don't want African-Americans "to eat at our restaurant or sleep at our hotels." And so what the guide was designed to do was to tell African-American travelers where they could actually stay, where they could actually eat, where they could get gas. And it was a really helpful guide in order to expand the world for African Americans, because travel, travel was something that was fraught with danger, particularly when you were going through the South, but not exclusively to the South.

- Well, let's go, let's do it. Tell me, what was the first place you visited?

- The very first place I went was Hoopers gas station over in Compton, California, which was to gas up of course. But it's one of the only African-American gas stations in Los Angeles. And if you can imagine-

- You mean now?

- Now, yes, yeah, now. Yeah, if you can imagine, the cars capital of the world, only having one Black-owned gas station. It's pretty incredible.

- It's amazing. So you leave Los Angeles, and I understand on your map you head to Arizona, right?

- Right, I go to Phoenix, Arizona, and one of the addresses that caught my eye was the Louis Jordan home. Now people who understand music and everything, they know Louis Jordan is one of the pioneers in jazz and hip hop and R&B. And so I figured, "Oh, okay, this is a great thing. "Maybe it's the same Louis Jordan, "maybe it's somebody else." So I go over there and it's a brick building kind of in the desert. It was listed in the book as a tourist home. Listeners should think of an Airbnb of 1957. Basically what you could do is you could go to a boarding home or a private home that someone owned and rent a room because you wouldn't be able to get a hotel. So I knock on the door and the guy comes out and I'm just, "Hey," tell him what I'm doing and I'm just trying to figure out, "Okay, who lives here now?" And he says, "Oh, well this home "doesn't belong to Louis Jordan anymore, "this home belongs to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

- So I was like, "Wow." I think it was gonna be like Mabel Jones. So it was incredible to find, and I found that that history and present day kind of mix in almost all of these homes.

- You're trying to go to only Black establishments to spend your money. How'd it feel?

- Oh, it was absolutely phenomenal. And yet you mentioned the fact that one of the things I was trying to do was to see how much money I could spend at Black-owned businesses. And the whole point of that is to understand that Black economics has always been one of the pillars of African-American Civil Rights movement, being able to have a business and then using that business to help build up neighborhoods. And one of the things that was great was to see in particular all these young entrepreneurs, particularly young African American women who were entrepreneurs, who were taking risks. This one young woman decided to open up a vegan restaurant in the heart of South Dallas. And I thought, "That's some mighty long odds "when you're basically competing "against delicious fried chicken "and soul food around in South Dallas." And you could see how people were tying it back to some heritage when it came back to African Americans pre going to urban areas, be farmers and being closer to the land. And it just was great to just see the entrepreneurial spirit, the risk taking and the pride that a lot of these business owners were taking. And so I felt really happy to spend my money there.

- Wow, you sound so optimistic and enthusiastic about it. It reminds me of an interview we did once with Toni Morrison, the great writer Toni Morrison. And she said... It's not a popular view, but she's nostalgic for pre segregation because the Black barber and the Black dentist and the Black store were all patronized by other Blacks, and there was more community." And she said, she misses that time.

- There's always a yin yang with African American community. There's always a yin yang, because on the one hand, segregation forces you, because you're declared second class citizens by the state to be in the same neighborhood, so therefore you have to patronize your own within those blocks, that neighborhood. But we always should remember the fact that that visceral feeling of community was imposed upon us, based upon the idea that we were inferior, and so therefore we did not deserve the rights of everyone else.

- It's funny, I'm picturing you going out and doing this and you're popping up and knocking on a door. You say you felt welcomed, but I'm wondering if you felt like you were at home when you come in to these barbershops and these places and these restaurants and these buildings, did you feel at home?

- Yeah, I had this one experience that I just loved. There was this one experience where I popped up around three o'clock in Monroe, Louisiana. I walked into a barbershop pool hall. You see about a dozen African-American men, you can tell that these are working men. These are the type of men with grizzled hands, with broken knuckles from having done a lifetime worth of work. And one of the things I always joke about is that being African American, that was my passport in, but it didn't mean I gained a respect. I wasn't from Monroe, they had never met me before and they looked at me, they couldn't instantly go through the Rolodex of relatives and say, "Hey, that's so-and-so's nephew" or so and so forth. I looked at that pool hall as being a sacred space. I stayed there for 15 minutes which is as long as I wanted to stay there because I figured after that, my time may be running a little long. But the African American community is a very welcoming community. We always joke is that you come up to my house, I'll tell you where everything is one time, then after that it's on you. You go and you get your stuff in. You're family and 15 minutes later we'll have connections. We don't need ancestry.com, we can make connections at some point in time of how we know each other and everything. We've never met in 50 something years. But that's kind of the warmth that you received. And I think that's life affirming, particularly for African Americans, because on a day-to-day basis, African Americans deal with their regular normal lives, just like everybody else. They go to work, they deal with their family and everything else like that. And then you deal with the social issues that come from the outside. The social issues, intra racial, the social issues that are interracial. And a lot of times you don't really take the time, you slow down and just enjoy what it means to be part of a community that's so warm and loving. And I think this trip was something that would encourage everyone to do.

- You used the word sacred twice in this interview. Like what made this sacred?

- Well, I think it is sacred because African Americans in this country have always yearned for the permanence of space. This idea that I have a stake in this place. And so when we actually create something, when someone, for example, in Jackson, Mississippi, there was a restaurant called Shepherd's Cafe, then it turned into called Steven's Cafe. And when I did the research, one of the things that I found was how many people talked about the ritual of going from church and heading over for a meal afterwards to going to Steven's Cafe. That's where you build your building blocks of who and what you are. Your sense of community, the sense of who are the people you think are important. And I think that's as important as walking into a church. I think that's just as important for a community as recognizing the humble person who may be waiting on you is just as royal as the mayor of the city due to the fact that they're the person who cares for you. They're the people who recognized you growing up. That's what makes it sacred. Those are the things that... It's the relationships that makes the space a sacred.

- Writer, Lawrence Ross talking about "The Route" trip, his road trip across the US. Charles Monroe-Kane was talking with him.

- Hello there, I'm Philip Pullman. I'm the author of "His Dark Materials," currently being shown on television, and of a new series of books called "The Book of Dust."

- Millions of children have read and loved Philip Pullman's books. But when he was a child, the age of his famous protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, what book did he love most? Welcome to "Bookmarks."

- I'm gonna talk about a book that was a big influence on me, which I first encountered at the age of, let me think about nine, I was nine years old. And it was a little pocket atlas, an atlas of the world, which I could put in my pocket of my blazer that I wore to school. And I took it everywhere with me because it absolutely fascinated me. I was fascinated by the look of my own country, England, looking at the town where I was born, Norwich in East Anglia, and all around the coast that I knew and looking at all the European countries and wondering what it would be like to go to Italy or to go to Germany or to go to France. I had spent quite a lot of my childhood traveling around the world, because my father and then my stepfather were both in the Royal Air Force. And in those days the RAF sent its pilots and its personnel to, well what was then the empire, still the British Empire. So I'd spent part of my childhood in Africa, Southern Africa and part in Australia. And it was nice to look at the map in my little pocket atlas and see where we used to live and all the places I'd been to. One of my favorite pages was the map that covered New England. And I went through this almost with a magnifying glass. So many towns all crowded together and so many of them had English names. There was a Norwich there, there was an Oxford there and that was fascinating. And there were towns with kind of names that could only have come from another country. One of them I was fascinated by was the town of Oconomowoc in Wisconsin. Many years later I found myself actually driving through Oconomowoc. I still have that little pocket atlas. Some of it's out of date now because the names of some countries have changed and some borders have changed. Although the physical geography of the world remains more or less the same, we now know more about it. And I can see that the Arctic ice, for example, doesn't cover as large as space as it used to. So the world is changing, but I still have my little atlas. And although I use mainly now for reference, while I'm writing, I use a very big atlas, which I can spread out on the desk and clear everything out of the way and examine, I still cherish that little atlas because it was a book that helped me when I was a child, imagine far away places that I still haven't been to.

- The pocket atlas. Do they still make those? Phillip Pullman is the author of the Fantasy series, "His Dark Materials." If you haven't read it yet, you can watch the TV version on HBO. I confess I don't especially love or even much like driving. I do take it for granted that I can, but imagine living in a country where women aren't allowed to drive.

- It was Thursday, there was blue sky, when in the parking lot when I took the driver's seat. When I turned the engine on, I had this rush of adrenaline and I felt like a bird coming out of a cage. I had sweaty hands and I fixed my hijab because I was thinking if the religious police stop me, I have to look as decent as I could. It was the first time I drive it in the city, where woman cannot drive. It was really liberating, just a simple act of starting your car and driving. That day, I said, "Let's just drive and pass by the landmarks in the city. "Make sure that when we videotape, "we take shots of the street's name "just to make a statement "that woman can go behind the wheel and drive." We posted that video on YouTube that night. The next day it was trending worldwide. I wanted to get arrested. So I asked my brother, "Can I drive again?" "This time your car and I wanna pass by a police car." We passed by a police car. I was pulled over. Someone called the religious police, that's when things been treated nasty.

- Manal al-Sharif on the drive that changed her life. We'll find out how after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To The Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. In America, a road trip is almost a rite of passage, but not everywhere. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women were not allowed behind the wheel of a vehicle until 2018. Women activists campaigned for years to get that restriction lifted, often at enormous personal risk. In 2017 I talked with Manal al-Sharif, who became the public face of The Women to Drive Movement, when on her 32nd birthday she did something women in every other country took for granted. She drove a car, and by doing so, put her life at risk. She told the story in her memoir, "Daring to Drive," which begins the night she went to prison.

- What I violated was not a law, was a custom. And even if there was a law, I would challenge that law because it's unjust. The same night after I was released at 2:00 AM the secret police showed up at my doorstep. I was taken for interrogation, and then I was strip searched and they put me in jail, woman in jail.

- And how long did you stay there?

- I was there for nine days.

- When you were arrested, what was the public reaction?

- The newspaper didn't do me well, really, they pictured me as evil, as Asian to the West. As someone who wants to corrupt the woman, as unholy. One cleric went so far to call for my lashing in public.

- Manal, I think it's important for women here to understand just how physically restricted life is for women in Saudi Arabia. How much less freedom they have just to move about to go places. Even for instance, to leave the house.

- Imagine you live in a city, big city like Los Angeles, and you don't have a car, you don't have public transportation and you don't have taxi companies that are reliable. And at the same time, you cannot walk in the city. Now you need to go to a job or your school or just simple act of going and buying your grocery. These are our cities. So we are forced to hire men to drive our own cars. And they live with us in our homes. So we have to bring non Saudis to drive our cars. They don't speak a language, they don't even know how to drive a car, we have to teach them.

- So women can own cars but they just can't drive them.

- Yes, my car is under my name. I bought my car, I paid for it, but I couldn't drive it. And I had a driver's license from New Hampshire.

- This shadow transportation system you described. What I don't understand is, you said this is a system of mostly foreign taxi drivers who in many cases are illiterate or don't know the rules of the road. And these are the men that women hire to drive them places. And yet most of the time in every other aspect of life, women are never allowed to be alone with men in Saudi Arabia, strange men, except in this one instance.

- This is the contradiction. We have the gender apartheid in my country where men and women are never allowed to mix. So growing up, men and women, we studied in different schools, different colleges. My male professors, I've never met them, I've always seen them through CCTV. The families themselves are segregated. Where my cousins, my own cousins, when I reach property I cannot talk to them, I cannot mix with them.

- You can't talk to your male relatives?

- No, if I meet them today in the street, I wouldn't even recognize my cousins. But the right to drive in my country we use it as a symbol of civil disobedience to protest the guardianship system. That the law does not recognize me as an adult. All my life I'm a minor, I'm considered a minor before the law. And we use the driving as a symbol of civil disobedience.

- You should explain the guardianship laws. A woman is considered a minor her entire life, so you always have to have a guardian. At first it's your father, but then that changes through your life?

- Imagine having a car with a registration paper and when you sell the car, the registration paper move to the new owner. This is exactly a Saudi woman. We have the guardianship, assigned legal guardian, male guardian. And this assigned male guardian change through our life. If I'm single, it's my father. If I don't have a father, it could be my uncle or my brother. When I get married, it moves to my husband. Let's say I don't have a husband or a brother or a father, it can be my own adult son. My own adult son gimme permission and the consent to get my papers or leave the country. Or even if I'm in jail. When I was in jail I needed my guardian to sign the release papers. So even if I finish my sentence in jail, I'm not allowed to leave jail a Saudi woman without my assigned male guardian come to jail and sign the papers. And I know a lot of girls are still in jail because their family feel ashamed. They won't go and sign the papers of their release, even after they finish their sentence.

- Well, in some ways what you're describing is the culture in which women are always in jail in some way or another. I think you wrote in the book that, is a woman supposed to have her guardian's permission to leave the house?

- Yes, not the written return, the spoken permission. She has to ask the guardian his permission to leave the house.

- So would you do that when you were married? Would you ask your husband if you could leave the house?

- Yes, I had to.

- What would happen if you left without his permission?

- He would get angry.

- I can see that the driving would become a symbol of being able to determine your own location. I guess your own-

- Drive, your own destiny. We call it drive your own destiny.

- It wasn't always this way in Saudi Arabia. I mean the country was relatively permissive until Wahhabism, this brand of much more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam became the norm, which was back in the seventies, I think. And you're part of the whole generation of young people that were affected by that. How old were you when you were radicalized, really adopted a much more fundamentalist interpretation.

- I think I was 14 or 15. It was in my middle school when I was looking for identity and I wanted to please my religious teachers who were the most popular in the school. And some of my generation were immune, but they were very few, most of us were prone to radicalization, which is following strict interpretation of the Islamic texts, that was imposed on us in schools, in the street, in public places, everywhere.

- And you actually became more fundamentalist than your family, when you went home and confiscated your brother's music cassettes, and I don't know, what else did you do?

- Yeah, I caused my brother to be kicked out of the house for one day for having a singer's picture in his wallet.

- When you look back at that period of your life, when you were a much more devout Islamic fundamentalist, are there things that you regret?

- Oh my God, a lot. I think just giving hard time to my family. We couldn't even watch TV. I would just be policing them for not listening to music 'cause it was haram, being angry at dad for not going to the mosque to pray Fajr prayer, which is the dawn prayer. I regret burning my own drawings that I spent years and years and years working on, and my sketchbooks. I didn't really have choice. I was thinking this is the right way to do it. I feel like I lost really beautiful times of my life, but it's not about really reminiscing and regretting the past more than what do you do with today, that you never go back there, you never fall in that hole again.

- And what about now, because you've paid a pretty heavy price for driving that car, and you wound up leaving Saudi Arabia and you had to leave your son behind. Do you ever feel guilty about the choices that you made?

- I think he will understand, my son, he's a big boy. Sometimes we don't have the choice. There are things that choose us, and they're bigger than us. I don't think I regret, because if no one speaks up, if no one is willing to pay the price for speaking up, there's no hope. When I wrote the book, I was thinking, "I'm gonna give hope "to women in my country. "I don't wanna bring them down, "I wanna bring them up," or I say, "Listen, I'm here, I made it."

- That's Manal al-Sharif from a conversation I had with her in 2017. Her memoir is called "Daring to Drive," and Manal no longer lives in Saudi Arabia. She's currently the cybersecurity director of Gridware based in Sydney, Australia. Coming up, an elephant takes a road trip across the Alps and getting high at Disney World. I'm Ann Strainchamps and this is "To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. And now Bookmarks, writers on books they love.

- I'm Julie Schumacher, author of "Dear Committee Members," and my bookmark recommendation is José Saramago, "The Elephant's Journey," written in Portuguese, but published in English in 2010. This short novel re-imagines an odd historical incident from the 1500s. The King of Portugal offers as a wedding present to his cousin, the Archduke of Austria, an elephant named Solomon, who then accompanied by appropriate regal fanfare, makes the long voyage mainly on foot over the Alps from Lisbon to Vienna. Well, the elephant has a trainer, a mahout from India, and he worries a lot about his relations with the royals who are on the trip, about pleasing them. At one moment the elephant is asked by a priest to kneel down in front of the church to show that he is a creature of the faith, and the Indian elephant driver needs to make that happen. The pilgrimage of the elephant Solomon and his entourage is strangely fanciful and comic. The point of view shifting from one character to another. In one passage the elephant Solomon admits feeling anxious about "His grayish coffee color "sprinkled with freckles and hairs." It was a permanent disappointment to him despite the advice he was always giving to himself about accepting his fate. Saramago's trademark pro style, the phrases and sentences unlatched from one another and curiously recombined in a breathless, semi punctuated fashion, can take a bit of getting used to, but a few pages into the novel, the effect is wonderfully hypnotic. The narrator darts like a buzzing insect through the paragraphs, reappearing unexpectedly here and there to make pronouncements or to ask questions about grammar, war, God, marriage, class, race, geography, and human animal relations. "It is time to warn the reader "that two of the characters here "are not acting in good faith," the narrator says. In the hands of a lesser writer, such interruptions would be annoying. But in "The Elephant's Journey," they are seamlessly woven into the text. I worry that someone listening to this recommendation might decide that "The Elephant's Journey," sounds difficult, experimental, inaccessible, but Saramago's novel is funny, poignant, and deeply moving. This is not weighty historical fiction. It's a very contemporary and remarkably cheerful flight of fancy. By retelling the wildly improbable story of an elephant traversing the Alps almost 500 years ago, Saramago creates a one of a kind journey for the reader as well. As one of the characters in the novel, ultimately concludes in a moment of celebration, "It isn't every day that an elephant appears in our lives."

- Julie Schumacher. "The Elephant's Journey," is based on a true story of a road trip in the year 1551. If you're going to drive all the way to Florida and take your kids to Disney World, you deserve to get high. I mean, if that's your jam, what better place to smoke a joint than with Daffy and Goofy? Note, I am not recommending or condoning this, but John Jeremiah Sullivan did try. Here's an abridged version of his essay, "You Blow My Mind. "Hey Mickey!"

- "When the children were huddled lumps "in various spots on the sofa bed, "Trevor and I stood on the balcony. "He talked about how challenging it would be the next day "and during the next days and nights in the park "not being able to smoke. "That wasn't high on my list of concerns. "In fact, I was foolish enough to think "that the fact of Disney "that we would be spending our time "in the heavily surveilled park "might banish the very notion of smoking weed, "easing Trevor's mini withdrawals "and making my life easier too. "And that I wouldn't spend too much time stoned. "Only a few puffs at night like this. "It would be a non-issue in terms of domestic harmony. "Trevor wasn't trying to hear that at all. "He was definitely stressed. "'I'm gonna lose my mind in there,' he said, "'have you ever been in there?' "'I had once when I was 11, I didn't remember much, "'it bounced off.' "'Well, we go every year,' Trevor said, "'and every year "'I feel like my skull's about to split open.' "'I always figured you were doing brownie,' I said, "'I do do brownies,' he said, "'I have brownies but you know...' "I did, edibles are good, "and wise heads move toward them over time "to save their lungs. "But there's something "about the combination of oxygen deprivation "and intense THC flush that comes with smoking. "And in particular from smoking joints. "There's no real substitute for the abuser. "A brownie can alter your mood over hours, "but a joint swings a psychic broom around you. "It clears an instant space. "'I actually saw this thing on the internet," Trevor said, "'where people were talking about "'getting high in the park.' "'At Disney World,' I said, "as if I hadn't been listening. "He led me back inside "and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. "'Check this out,' he whispered. "Only the two of us were awake. "I dropped into one of the swivel stools "in front of the bright screen, "I was reading, before I knew what I was reading, "but it was like a chat room or a forum. "Forum is the better term. "A motif of cannabis leaves "and naked women holding glittery buds "ran down the left margin a pothead forum. "Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, "the subject of which read 'Re-Hello from Disney World,' "an anonymous person, "evidently the veteran "of a staggering number of weed smoking experiences "in the park, "had done a solid for the community "and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. "It was nothing less than a fiend's guide to Disney World. "It pinpointed the safest places "for burning the proverbial rope. "Telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. "Isolated footpaths that didn't see much traffic. "conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, "places where you could hide under a bridge "by little artificial river. "Those were its points of interest. "The number of views "suggested that the list "had helped a lot of desperate people. "The main point was clear and consistent, "'Be ready to book it.' "No sooner had we pressed our fingers "onto the biometric scan pads, "because if you can't trust Disney "with your biological data... "Than old Trevor began to show signs "he hadn't been able to smoke that morning. "Quarters too cramped. "He was craving, not that he acted jumpy or cranky. "I could just tell from the body language "and sentence length "that it was on his mind. "Nothing like an enclosed space and Disney world "for all its gigantism "manages never to let you forget for a second "that you're in a very tightly enclosed space "to make a head start scanning for exits. "Lil' Dog and the ladies were sailing by "up above on the Dumbo ride in three successive elephants. "Mimi had a tentatively happy face. "It said, 'I'm ready to think of this as fun "'as long as it doesn't go any faster or higher.' "Trevor and I leaned on the railing like bettors at a track, "smiling and waving every time they went past "as if we were dolls with arms hooked to wires. "Trevor had his phone out "with the internet dialed up to the guide. "He consulted it "when they were on the dark side of their orbit. "Checking it against a map of the park, "we determined that one of the spots mentioned "wasn't too far away. "A little used maintenance pathway "with trees alongside it and some dumpsters. "Given a properly position to look out, "you could have a puff in relative calm. "We slipped away. "Now, we were truly at Disney World. "A person didn't come here every day. "What is the scene here? "Hello, primary colors; "hello, quickly fading microdramas "of passing human faces, "incessantly deciding whether to make eye contact; "hello repeating stalls and gift shops. "We were walking on the balls of our feet. "The surface of things had become porous "and permitted of the potential for enjoyment. "Where were our women folk and Lil' Dog? "Let's find them. "Let's be good fathers. "Tomorrow was Father's Day. "Oh my God, I didn't even remember that. "'We don't need to remember that,' Trevor said, "'we are that, "'we are Father's Day.' "Next memory: riding on the mechanical boat "through the, It's a Small World attraction, "continually spraying Mimi "who looked as if she had been boiled in a tank. "Her cheeks were so red and her little forehead was glowing. "The whole time I was spraying, she was waving at the dolls, "acknowledging every single doll's wave with her own, "showing an OCD like desire not to miss anyone. "It seemed that she misunderstood the nature of the dynamic, "believed we ourselves were part of some parade "being observed by the dolls. "A more natural idea, I suppose. "Why would you go floating by in a boat "to look at children standing along the banks of a river? "They would be looking at you because you are a princess. "Flora was angry "because Lil' Dog hogged their family sprayer "and was just sitting there spray fanning himself "right in the face. "And by the end of the ride, "he had squirted all the water away. "'Son' Trevor said. "No sooner did we enter Epcot "than Trevor started checking his phone. "And while I won't bore you with more detail "about that business, "there being no tediousness quite like doper tediousness, "suffice it to say that the rest of the day was spent "on pendulum bouts of ecstatic, "hyper-attentive parenting "followed by separation from family "to indulge addiction and vice. "There is deep yearning at Disney. "What you feel when you're in the state we were in "and all of your emotional pores are wide open is yearning. "There is something at stake here, for the families, "in terms of that knife edge between joy and disappointment. "So when you see people whose kids "are definitely not having fun, "but are standing in place and screaming, "having to be dragged along by their leash-harnesses, "there's a throb of empathetic sadness. "They are not having a good Disney." "I looked at Mimi. "Was she having fun? "I thought so, she was smiling. "But I knew there were times in my own childhood "when I must have seemed to my parents "like I was having a blast, "while being inwardly tormented by some irrational worry. "Ah, youth! "How many of my genes had she inherited, "and could I teach her how to play them better? "You want joy for your children, "but you yourself have brought them "into this world of suffering." "The strangest thing that happened "was the very last thing that happened. "As we were leaving the park, "on the evening of the last day, "it began to rain a monsoon like rain. "You'll have to believe me when I say "it was exceptionally violent. "The next morning I said "to one of the bellboys at the hotel, "'You guys probably get weather like that a lot, huh?' "He said, 'No, we don't.' "It was as if a black spaceship had swooped down "and blocked out the sun. "Sheets of wind were tearing through. "Lightning continually exploded just above our heads. "The tram-caravan kept having to stop, "which made it only scarier, "as if they had driven us out into the open "in some sacrificial way, "as target practice for an offended storm god. "Also it was disturbing to see the clockwork perfection "of the Disney machine threatened that way. "It hinted at a larger underlying weakening of something. "The tram we were riding in was open on the sides "and covered above only by a plastic canopy. "We were exposed and getting blasted. "But we had the Disney ponchos. "Shell had made us all buy them "at a gas station, "so possibly they were knockoffs. "But they worked, and by sitting close together "with all of them spread, "we could make a tent. "It must have looked very weird. "On the other hand I'm positive "that every other person on the tram "wished they were under it with us, and I'm pretty sure at one point "we did have some other people's kids. "Underneath, in the dark, the children were loving it. "Mimi and Flora screamed in terror "every time the thunder boomed, "but their terror was full of joy, "and afterward there was laughter. "And it was wonderful to be able to cover them. "We had the solution for this, barring a direct strike. "Later, when asked, "Lil' Dog said that this had been his favorite ride."

- John Jeremiah Sullivan, reading an abridged version of his essay, "You Blow My Mind. "Hey, Mickey!" Sullivan's a writer and editor and author of a collection of essays called "Pulphead."

- And why don't you give this little car a fair chance? You bought it, enjoy it.

- Bye Herbie.

- To The Best of Our Knowledge is made each week by a tiny team of road trippers. Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Sarah Hopeful, Steve Paulson and me Anne Strainchamps. Thanks to all of our guests and to you for listening. Be well and come back off.

- Let's go Herby.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
June 14, 2024