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One for the Read

Writer's Love of Cars Takes Him Across the Country and Occasionally Off Track

"The Distance to the Moon: A Road Trip Into the American Dream," by James Morgan (Riverhead Books, $24.95, 285 pages)

July 22, 1999|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Journalist, magazine editor and car buff James Morgan scored his dream assignment: Roam the United States talking to Americans about their fascination with cars and driving--and do it in a brand-new Porsche Boxster roadster.

Morgan's thesis is straightforward: "What you're about to read is a love story. Like all love stories, it sometimes makes no sense. The affair is between us and our automobiles. That, after all, is the epic entanglement that's defined this century and reshaped the face of America."

Unfortunately, Morgan often seems to be less interested in America's love affair with automobiles than in his personal fascination with them. He spends a disproportionate amount of time in the Miami area, where he grew up--looking up old friends, chatting, drinking and revisiting places where he lived and drove.

He also reflects on his two former marriages and on what seems to be a troubled third one. Although he makes it all the way across the country, large areas get short shrift, including Southern California, arguably the capital of car culture.

Wherever he goes, Morgan looks for kindred spirits in offbeat bars, restaurants and hotels. He finds a karaoke joint in Pocatello, Idaho, with surprisingly good singers and a homey tavern in North Platte, Neb. There's a cafe in Butte, Mont., where the food is so good and the portions so large that Morgan retires after dinner to "the sleep of a satiated miner." An old hotel in St. Joseph, Mo., that celebrates the Pony Express turns out to be both more interesting and cheaper than the nearby Ramada Inn.

He avoids franchise eateries and hotels and complains about how chains of fast-food restaurants, stores and motels catering to drivers have introduced a wearying sameness into the American landscape. Regional cooking, attitudes, architecture and styles have given way to a homogenized collage of Wal-Mart, Gap, Ramada, Wendy's, Banana Republic and, of course, McDonald's that makes one neighborhood or city indistinguishable from any other. "By indulging our urge to go, and our need for familiarity, we've created a country not worth going to."

The Boxster, which was not yet commercially available in the U.S. when Morgan made his trip (it was introduced about a year later, in the spring of 1997), attracts other auto buffs, and Morgan is happy to chat with them. In Kansas City, Mo., he compares notes with an old friend and a new acquaintance, concluding that when they were in high school, kids who loved cars went drag-racing. Today, they argue, kids are more impressed by sound than speed: Boom-box speakers have replaced triple carburetors as status symbols. To confirm their conclusions, Morgan joins the lines of teenagers cruising the main street after the last day of the school year.

*

Morgan writes in an informal, engaging style, interweaving personal reminiscences and observations with a brief account of the development of the national highway system, changes in auto body styles and statistics on the ever-increasing number of miles the average American drives each year (also the growing congestion on highways and city streets).

But in his weaker moments, he lends credence to the cliche about what a flashy sport car represents to a middle-aged man. The new Porsche draws the attention of men and women he meets on the road, and Morgan basks in the admiration--particularly the comments from teenage boys about how he can "get any woman in the world" with that car.

Despite his complaints about the effects of mass mobility on American society, Morgan never wavers in his love for cars, especially his jazzy Porsche. He snidely dismisses the ecologically minded urban planners in Portland, Ore., who are working to discourage driving and encourage alternative forms of transportation.

Although America's affair with the automobile is becoming a love-hate relationship, Morgan writes only about the love. Yet he draws a disturbingly accurate, if grim, conclusion:

"Today, cars often are pitched as places to hide from the world our restlessness has created. . . . Just run to our car, lock the doors and turn up the music.

"Somewhere along the line the escape route got jammed and everything became confused. Once upon a time the car was going to take us to our cabin in the woods. Now it's become that cabin."

*

Charles Solomon can be reached at highway1@latimes.com.

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