Going Somewhere?

Little Boy, Liberia, and Easy Rider: Longform’s guide to road trips.

Man driving convertible
Man driving convertible

Photo by Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

Most road trips are undertaken by choice, but not always. What follows are stories of people who, for disparate reasons, hit the highway.

The Ballad of the Piggyback Bandit
Bryan Curtis • Grantland • July 2012

How Sherwin Shayegan pulled off a 3,000-mile, piggyback ride-fueled journey.

“The detectives also found that Sherwin’s choice of sporting events—mostly basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and hockey games—was anything but random. Upon opening the door to his hotel room, Ranalli says, they discovered piles of dossiers he’d prepared on athletes. Sherwin had ransacked the Internet to find biographical tidbits about high school soccer players from Washington and Montana. He’d catalogued the favorite foods of Brandon Brown, the point guard for the Montana Western basketball team. ‘That’s public information!’ Sherwin told the detectives. ‘I can have that!’

“Everywhere he went, the Piggyback Bandit had a knack for targeting the best player on the field. In Helena, I go to the office of the local paper, the Independent Record, to see how he did it. I open the sports page from October 27—the day Sherwin would have gotten into town—and find an article about the soccer player Sherwin targeted. The top sports story in the next day’s Record—published the day Sherwin was arrested—reported that the same player had gotten a red card. According to Lawrence and Ranalli, Sherwin had that fact at the ready when he met the player on the field. He’d studied his target so he’d have something to talk about.”

Atomic John
David Samuels • New Yorker • December 2008

On the road with John Coster-Mullen, a truck driver who reverse engineered the atomic bomb.

“At midmorning, we reached the outskirts of Omaha, where we visited the Strategic Air and Space Museum, whose grounds are marked by a towering Atlas D ballistic missile. Energized by forty ounces of Diet Coke, Coster-Mullen ignored the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane hanging over the entrance to the museum and headed straight to the front desk, where he corralled a retired armed-services veteran who was volunteering his time. Smooth jazz played in the background.

“ ‘Do you have any casings of Little Boy or Fat Man?’ he asked.

“No, the veteran said.

“By the time we left the museum, the sky had gone dark and storm clouds were on the horizon. As Coster-Mullen drove, I examined a scale drawing of Little Boy that he had begun drafting in 1995. When he had visited the Bradbury Science Museum earlier that year, he noticed that a diagram of the exterior of the bomb had been mislabelled; it placed a contact fuse on the nose of Little Boy. An archivist agreed to send Coster-Mullen a copy of the flawed diagram in the mail. Also included in the package was a partial diagram of the bomb’s interior, a document that Los Alamos had never before released. The diagram revealed that a long gun barrrel had been screwed directly into an adapter attached to the target case. This was the first piece of hard information that researchers had about how the mechanism inside Little Boy was actually assembled.”

It’s a Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun Country
Annie Proulx • Outside • May 2004

A wandering summer road trip.

“The bruise-colored clouds, riven by incessant lightning, close the horizon with no exit. The wind claws the fields. At Black Mesa we see no one but a man walking a dog. He turns away when we slow down, probably doesn’t want to be asked what people here do for fun. We loop the park, go out to the primitive camping sites: empty, nobody, nothing but signs of prohibition–no fires, no fishing. Then the clouds open, and as the Boise City paper succinctly put it, ‘Hard rain fell quickly.’

“Next morning we are in the local eatery: a few booths, Formica tables with ashtrays, chairs with chrome legs. The waitress brings us ice water and weak coffee. Collins is having one of his spells; he has blended the personalities of Red Shirt’s mother who worried too much and Shirley, the horse that rolled. He points and says, ‘Let me tell you something.’ The restaurant fills up with Oklahoma farmers. They all look the right age to have inhaled pounds of prairie soil in the Dust Bowl days. They all smoke and cough. The air is blue. A farmer, tanned as black as charred toast except for the dead white forehead of the tractor-cap wearer, walks in; he is wearing a short-sleeved pink shirt, purple shorts, and purple suspenders. Three tractor drivers in kidney belts follow him and order pie, and then comes a knot of older farmers, one in bright green pants and a striped shirt, another in age-yellowed white patent-leather loafers. They limp in on canes and with walkers, greet everyone in hoarse voices, light cigarettes, and begin to cough, deep, terrible coughs that rack them and set off a round of sympathetic coughing through the whole restaurant. Hack, hack, hack, hack. Collins, a nonsmoking vegetarian (though I have seen him declare a lobster to be a vegetable), wants simultaneously to get out of the place and to stay and take photographs of Decayed Rural Civilization. Instead he drinks his water and calls for more. Later he says, ‘Farmers are the unhealthiest people in the country.’

“Don’t know why, but the Cimarron National Grasslands up beyond Elkhart, Kansas, looks good to us. The Cimarron River flows through, and they say it’s a good place to camp or have a picnic.”

Tom Freston, Runaway Mogul
Joe Hagan • Men’s Journal • February 2013

A Liberian road trip with the creator of MTV, Ralph Reed, and a reformed cannibal named General Butt Naked.

“’We’re on a bus rambling up the Cape Coast of Ghana to Elmina, site of the world’s largest slave castle, which was run by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. The road is clogged with motorcycles, some with four people astride them, and brightly painted minibuses spitting black smoke. Street sellers flash their wares at our bus as lanky women with gigantic baskets of fruit on their heads saunter through the heat.

“Tom Freston is sitting up front, headphones on, punching out emails to producer Brian Grazer about a script idea involving John Glenn and Charles Lindbergh.

“We flew here from Liberia on a borrowed 767 with cream-colored chaise longues and private sleeping quarters. There was a lunch of grilled shrimp and cabernet. From the grimmest of slums in Liberia to opulence at 30,000 feet in the space of a few hours—it’s the kind of cultural and socioeconomic whiplash that Freston is used to. He isn’t one to go native. He carries Hollywood and Manhattan in his BlackBerry 24/7. Even in the wilds of Chocolate City, where chickens and stray dogs roam muddy roads and children play in abandoned buildings, Freston wears Prada sneakers and carries a Jack Spade bag.”

Taking the Great American Roadtrip
Paul Theroux • Smithsonian • September 2009

The Great Railway Bazaar author drives across the country.

“By design and intention, mine was not a leisurely trip. I drove home in installments. Traveling, slapping my map and trying to make sense of the transitions, I was constantly asking people directions. I always got help without any suspicion. My rental car’s New York license plates aroused friendly curiosity all over the West and the South. At first I regretted that I did not know the South better; and then I began to think of this deficit as a travel opportunity, reflecting on the South as I had once contemplated parts of Europe or Asia: the dream of traveling through what was to me not just an unknown region but one that promised hospitality.

“This feeling stayed with me all the way through the rolling hills to Nashville, where over lunch in a diner, I was greeted by the people at the next table, who saw I was alone and wanted me to feel welcome. I drove north on I-65, from Nashville into Kentucky. It was a special day in Owensboro, where a local man, Specialist Timothy Adam Fulkerson, killed in action near Tikrit, Iraq, was being honored: a section of U.S. 231 was being named for him, giving this country road a deeper meaning.”

The Easy Rider Road Trip
Keith Phipps • Slate • November 2009

Retracing the route Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda followed in Easy Rider.

“As a Monument Valley sunset plays out in real time, Easy Rider pauses to let viewers consider the moment’s layers. Wyatt and Billy—a pair of modern-day cowboys, if only in name—visit the heart of the West. Or, at least, the movie version of the West. Seeing it in person, I kept doing double takes. Here was a vista unlike anything I’d ever seen—except I had seen it, many times, in postcards, picture books, and films as varied as Forrest Gump, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Ford’s Westerns. This was the frontier, untamed America, the place where the civilizing force of Wyatt Earp met the lawlessness of the Clanton boys—even if it had only played that part in movies.”

Retracing Hank Williams’ Ghostly Night Ride
Peter Cooper • The Tennessean • January 2003

On his last night, Williams lay dying in the back of a blue Cadillac, with 17-year-old Charles Carr at the wheel.

“When passing through Mount Hope, Carr was monumentally exhausted and probably quite worried about the well-being of his famous passenger, but today he is certain he didn’t stop at Bon Bon’s.

“Carr remembers continuing on toward Oak Hill, a town in which Hank had never performed, never stayed and possibly never heard of, yet which would become forever intertwined with the Hank Williams legend.

“Somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill, Carr says, he noticed that Williams’ blanket had slid off his frame.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.