PACIFIC GROVE — Brad Herzog cares about his country. It goes beyond appreciation to fascination, coupled with a deep desire to experience it, understand it, write about it.
In an effort to do so, he has explored the United States by traveling across the country, by getting out in it, meeting people, asking questions, recording answers and then writing about his experiences — and theirs.
For his latest release, “DETOUR 2020: A Cross-Country Drive Through America’s Wrong Turns,” Herzog urged an elderly camper from coast- to-coast in just three weeks, to explore where and why this country turned down so many wrong roads throughout one of the most devastating years in American history.
After spending family time in Wisconsin, Herzog drove his son to Virginia, and then turned his wheels around and headed home, via a rambling route that began in Jamestown, wandered through Appomattox, Hazard, Dodge City, Metropolis, Roswell and, after plenty of unexpected turns and unlikely encounters, delivered him to the rim of the Grand Canyon.
His goal was to get home. His intention was to live in the moment, all the way there, so he could see and hear how other people live their beliefs, giving him a greater context in which to interpret the events of 2020, besides his own backyard.
When a book begins with “New Hope is somewhere, but I don’t see the signs,” and ends with “I hope we make it,” you know you are headed for a wild ride. Herzog doesn’t disappoint.
He researched the book, up close and in person, in a matter of weeks. He wrote it quickly and self-published it by the end of 2020 to make sure it reaches his reader in the moment.
Writing down the road
A prolific local author, who has penned and published more than 50 books in 20 years, Brad Herzog first introduced his readership to his interest in what lies beyond his Last Hometown of Pacific Grove, with the 1999 release of “States of Mind,” his first foray into the “out of town.”
It was the mid-90s when Herzog and his wife Amy stepped out of their lives and into a Winnebago to find out if all of America was as cynical as he perceived his generation to be. He wondered if everyone was increasingly motivated by self-interest or if his representative sampling was too small. In what became a 314-day, 48-state odyssey, the Herzogs mapped out their travels in search of virtue — looking for a destination they weren’t sure existed — as they sought out cities and towns called Love, Faith, Hope, Inspiration, Wisdom, Pride, Honor, Comfort, Joy, Bliss, and others, to see if they really lived up to their name.
“’States of Mind’ was a search for virtue in America, by traveling through towns named for different virtues. In each town,” said Herzog, “I gave myself a challenge — to incorporate history, geography, philosophy, and my own opinions, and write something compelling out of it. I knew what I wanted to talk about, and I knew I had to go across the country to explore it.”
Since then, the Herzogs have raised two sons, from kindergarten to college — were COVID not curtailing their on-campus opportunities. Meanwhile, Brad Herzog’s experience with “States of Mind” shifted his pen from decades of freelance-writing for magazines, airlines, and online content, to authoring books, more than 30 of which are children’s books, many of which carry a sports theme. He also coauthored a civil rights memoir, and four travel memoirs, most recently, “DETOUR 2020.”
Throughout the summer of 2020 and into the fall, Herzog believed the country was at a crossroads that could have gone in either direction —dead end or open road. So, he came up with a creative way to chronicle America by using small towns as a canvas to tell a story.
“In the long view,” he said, “as I considered the wrong turns America took throughout 2020, I wanted to make sure history didn’t normalize the moment. In the short view, I wanted to capture it as much as possible and provide a palpable awareness of the various existential battlegrounds going on before the moment had passed.”
To that end, Herzog developed an itinerary that would enable him to examine beliefs and behaviors and talk about what he found. The passenger seat beside him held more than 100 pages of research, which gave him a context in which to interpret what he encountered. By day, he met people, saw places, noticed things. At night, he wrote about them.
And what he realized each evening as he put often intense experiences into words, is that you can’t drive cross country in neutral.
Sixty years ago, John Steinbeck wrote, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find, after years of struggle, that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Six months ago, Herzog wrote, “Perhaps each of us here in this world of wonder has answered a call from our subconscious to undertake a pilgrimage, to shed conflicting identities and attitudes, and share a sense of awe with strangers, to be reminded by nature that the calamities of humankind are only a comparative blip in time.”
Toward the end of his trip, Herzog took a detour, which deposited him at the Grand Canyon. There, he found a wide range of humanity wandering around, marveling at this wonder of the world. He heard no talk of politics, of economics, of racism, of COVID, or anything else wrong with the country. Instead, everyone had come upon something bigger than themselves, which they could share.
“I saw the Grand Canyon as a metaphor,” he said, “and in that, I realized two things. That grand divide didn’t happen overnight; it took a long time to get there. And, there is no bridge to cross that divide; we have to go all the way down before we can start climbing back up again. I think that resonates. And I think it’s true. I hope and believe we’ve reached the bottom, and maybe we’ve already started the climb.”
Contributed by local news sources