Filial Dues

On the Road, Old Bean: Two Brits Adventures in America

Nigel Nicolson—publisher, son of Vita Sackville-West—and his son Adam set out to cross the United States by car and meet in the middle in Kansas. Jessica Ferri on discovering their out-of-print road trip—and its refreshingly honest account of their relationship.

Getty,Ben Pipe Photography

A few weeks ago I found myself in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia with a week to kill in between weddings. I had long heard tell of Asheville, North Carolina's legendary used bookstores, so I drove up for two nights. One shop in particular, The Battery Park Book Exchange, surpassed my expectations - not only is it one of the largest used bookstores I've ever visited, it's also a champagne bar. As I managed an armful of books and a champagne flute, a spine tucked away in the travel section caught my eye: "Nigel and Adam Nicolson." Nigel Nicolson, as in the son of Vita Sackville-West: English lady, poet, gardener, lover of Virginia Woolf and inspiration for her novel Orlando - and Adam, his son. The book, Two Roads to Dodge City, is a delightful collection of letters that the two men exchanged while on a simultaneous cross-country road trip of the United States. Undertaken in 1986, Nigel began in Miami and Adam in Los Angeles, and, at the book's conclusion, the two meet in the middle of the country in Dodge City, Kansas.

From the beginning it's very apparent that these are Englishmen with a capital E, albeit of different generations. Nigel, 69, is both impressed and disturbed by the amount of towels in a typical American hotel room. By his count, 14 towels—listed under the "good" section of a "good," "indifferent" and "bad" things about the States. (Bad: "Waiting in line to be seated in an almost empty restaurant"; Indifferent: "Police politeness"; Good: "Breakfast.") Adam, 30, loves Los Angeles. "I don't quite understand how a city can be so sedate and frenetic at the same time, but somehow Los Angeles manages it." But it's not all roses—Adam is baffled by a trip to the Playboy mansion where he claims he has "never seen a collection of people who look so exactly like their photographs," and after learning about Angelenos practice of positive affirmations ("Financial success is coming to me easily and effortlessly"), he writes Nigel, "This is a terminus for civilisation, don't you think?"

There are many more moments of dry English humor, including Nigel's visit to the Biltmore Estate. "The Biltmore Estate is one of the largest houses I have ever seen, and without question one of the ugliest." It's tragic that such a gem of a book could be out of print, but that's the sad truth. The copy I snagged is a first British edition and the jacket features both men standing proudly in front of their respective vehicles. In fact, Nigel was so fond of his American car that he wrote Adam their relationship had moved from platonic reverence to full-on spiritual, eternal marriage.

As if the conclusions (some silly, others painfully accurate) about American culture were not enough, Two Roads to Dodge City is also an honest portrait of a father-son relationship. In one letter written late night, Adam says to his father, "I can at least remember as a teenager trying to talk to you and feeling hopelessly powerless in any conversation . . . Any cruelty was of course unintentional and I understand now that you must have been at least as desperate as I was to make some sort of contact beyond the absurd formalities that we were usually engaged in." Nigel's response, delayed by a few days, reads "I don't see our past quite like that, and I'm deeply sorry if I widened a gap which I was trying desperately to close. But I was aware of it. I found it sad that there should have been a mutual awkwardness . . . Perhaps this will be the only time we mention it." In another letter when Nigel assumes Adam's hurt following the divorce of his parents could not be "very deep," Adam responds, "It's not your part . . . you have to take it from me that the hurt was very deep at the time and that I was unable to talk to a single person about it for 9 years."

Perhaps it was the only time the two spoke frankly. After all, when would father and son ever be this honest with one another except in the comfortable space that written correspondence affords? Can we imagine two men exchanging e-mails in this way today? We can't know for sure - presumably, both returned to their daily routines when the road-trip ended. But the emotional experience of traveling alone—of opening up and thinking about one's life analytically, to have the time and space to do this—is an experience to which we can all relate. Adam reflects on his relationship with his father—how he both resents and maintains the status quo. "I feel, and this is hardly examined—a strong desire to communicate with you and an equally strong reluctance to do so . . . it is no good saying that it is the archetypal father-son relationship . . . the question is why this interbedded reluctance and desire should be the archetype."