Author and playwright Stephen Evans’s memoir, in a new edition, revisits his journey through natural landmarks of the mid and western U.S. and the philosophical rambles they inspired.
“We live on the surface of the past,” Evans begins, but it’s his past, including a painful divorce, that he’s driving away from when he leaves Washington, D.C. with no itinerary but with maps, books, and a toy moose named Bernard. A thoughtful diarist, Evans records meals, conversations, scenery observations, and random musings, many regarding spirituality and philosophy. The diary avoids becoming claustrophobic with cuts to outside history and knowledge, including reactions to what he’s reading on the journey—Ralph Waldo Emerson essays—and information about the places he visits, like the geology of the Badlands or the origins of Devil’s Tower.
The philosophical topics are engaging and wide-ranging, from quantum physics to animal behavior, but like the spare glimpses at his own history—his marriage, his plays—these probings lead less to self-awareness than whimsy: “As we…make a path sacred to ourselves, the essential human choices are breakfast and poetry,” Evans writes as he mulls the universe’s size and the human search to impose order and meaning.
Gentle and sculpted, the prose is highly readable, and much of Evans’s experience is deeply relatable. His vibrant descriptions bring the scenery alive, as when he hears a symphony in a stream at Pipestone Monument. “[S]lowly I was awakening,” Evans writes.
The revelations that astonish him don’t always hit readers with the same impact. When Evans informs Bernard “We’re home. And everything looks different,” readers may miss what epiphanies he’s arrived at. But the journey, perhaps, is the point: “Even where there is no happiness, there is the next joy and the next,” he writes.
Although more anecdotal than transcendent, Evans’s book, with its beautiful description, poignant moments, and interesting philosophy, will resonate with any reader who has set out for new places to find something “barely remembered, yet vaguely familiar: joy.”