November 1, 1996
Who has not wanted to chuck it all, and take an exploratory journey from sea to shining sea? Maybe the desire is bred into us, along with the pioneer spirit that brought us to this vast country of America. Some of us might want to walk, some ride a bike, others might tout one cause or another, or simply jog with neither cause nor destination, like Forrest Gump, running till we simply run out of steam. But when Mike McIntyre chose to embark on the journey, he did it with the intent of creating material for a book, The Kindness of Strangers-Penniless Across America; and with the specific intent of facing his fears.
One thing that is interesting about this memoir from a walk in the '90's is that it is a kind of bucket list pre-dating the concept of the bucket list. Not that he was about to kick the bucket. However it concludes (and I am not about to tell you), it may have been in his mind to get his big walk out of the way before committing himself to the girlfriend Anne he leaves behind, the one to whom he plans to return.
So here's the walk in a nutshell: McIntyre leaves his home in California, and sets out to walk/hitchhike across the country to North Carolina, to the aptly named destination (given his objective of facing his fears) to Cape Fear, NC. He ramps up his US tour by traveling without money, purely (as his title states) on the kindness of strangers.
Rather than being a stereotypical travelogue, or even a discussion of locales, this book is a scrapbook of page after page of American faces, a journalist's eye-view of those Americans who carry the author on his penniless journey one ride at a time. McIntyre's gift is in glimpsing the heart of each of his benefactors, and in doing so, portraying a unique view of a random and rather sad collection of Americans. Of course these views can not be in depth, because how can a moment in a car, or even a whole day or two spent in someone's life give a full and rounded portrait? But the result is counter-intuitive; contrary to what one might expect, these moments passing under McIntyre's eye enable his swift pen to sketch snapshots of individuals, families, even communities. These communities, families and individuals are less than affluent, and skew toward the wretched. One must remember when reading this that McIntyre's journey is deliberately plotted through communities which are not much more affluent than the penniless hobo he is pretending to be.
Here's the thing: glimpses into the lives of the providers of 78 meals do not provide an unskewed view of the country. Not everyone will pick up a hitchhiker, especially in this post-Manson world, where, rather than being a simple act of kindness, opening a car door to carry a stranger ten miles down the road is an act of dangerous stupidity. So the portrait of Americana is one somewhat tarred by circumstance, skewed to those down on their luck, those with nothing left to lose, those who are dangerously naive, or those who wear religion like kevlar vests. Furthermore, the book is written from a viewpoint that is solidly California-Liberal straining to appear objective (a fairly typical journalistic stance.) Whether or not McIntyre finds himself, he provides no more summation than one might find in a scrapbook. That does not make the cast of characters any less interesting.