Spiral Jetta

I desperately need a book discussion group.

It needs to be on the title Spiral Jetta: a Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West by Erin Hogan.  I decided to read this book because I am about to embark on a highball run from Milwaukee to Santa Monica whereupon I plan on turning the van around and driving Route 66 all the way back to Chicago.

4,000 miles in 17 days.  No motel reservations.  No plan other than to let Route 66 lead me where it may. 

And if I am as ill-prepared as Erin Hogan was to take her western jaunt, I am in big trouble.  Hogan is the Director of Public Affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago and got this crazy idea in her head that she “wanted to enjoy being alone.”  She thought a formless trip out West, to shake off her urban sensibilities and to see the great land art of the West, is just what she needed.

My reading of her book is that she failed at most things.  First off, she was only alone for about half the trip, eventually being joined by her friend Todd.  Second, she attempts to see five works of land art but can only manage to find three of them.  Yes, that is right–she is the old cliche “she could not find this art even if she had a map.”

Third, she is not really enamored with the West that she uncovers.  She does not shed her urban sensibilities but mostly conducts herself as a judgmental city slicker put off by the unfamiliar and especially critical of the things she does not understand.

When she does manage to find art, she discusses it like she has copied sections out of her dissertation, an odd contrast to the voice she uses to tell us that she is too cheap to stay in decent facilities but yet bold enough to list their shortcomings when they fall short of expectations. 

Also oddly, her critique of the three land art pieces she does find, and of other adventures like Arches, Marfa and Juarez, all come off rather negative.  Enough to make me cross them off my travel list before I even go. 

So, why do I need a book discussion?  Because for some odd reason I found her narrative voice oddly compelling.  Someone liked her rather sad efforts to be an explorer enough to publish a book about her failures.  They must have wanted to take Hogan under their wing as well and do the simplest things to make her life easy.  Like suggest sun screen or perhaps a GPS unit. 

Even without the help of a discussion I have learned a few things for the trip I am taking.  I am going cover the miles with my wife as a companion.  Even though I do not know which ones they will be, all my lodgings will cost more that $100 per night and have clean sheets.  I will eat well, carry water, use sun screen and never, never, never take my street vehicle on a road clearly indicated as reserved for four-wheel drive. 

If you never hear from me again, I might have left something off the list.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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