Inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (his French standard poodle), and after years of researching and writing about the Revolutionary War, an idea dawned on author Nathaniel Philbrick: retrace the trips the newly-elected President George Washington made to the former colonies of our fledgling nation. Nat even had the perfect dog for the job, his Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever Dora. And like Steinbeck (although Steinbeck didn’t admit to it), Nat was happy to have his wife Melissa, recently retired, as companion and navigator on their journeys. Their goal was not just to follow in Washington’s footsteps (or carriage tracks), but to learn about the people he met along the way. Nat came to realize, however, “As Steinbeck had so prophetically written, ‘We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.’”
For those of us who live or work on Nantucket and have met Nat, Melissa, and Dora, the personal glimpses Nat shares about their family life while writing this book are humorous and appreciated. You even get to read about Nat flipping off a driver in lower Manhattan, and his wariness of Melissa’s “trademark sighs.”
I had the pleasure of listening to Nat talk about Travels with George in Falmouth this past November. One of the things I enjoy the most about both reading and listening to Nat is his pure enthusiasm for his subjects. He loves sharing the stories he has discovered in his research – for instance, the irony that although Washington was warmly welcomed everywhere he visited, he was embarrassed and unhappy about the attention he received. Or, the stories that unfolded on Nat’s road trips, such as when a filth-covered Dora came face to face with an “unrelentingly white” hotel room.
Much of our hero-worship of George Washington has been rattled in recent years due to revelations about his owning slaves and possibly even using their teeth in his dentures. As Nat explains, “The past is not a pretty place – nor, I need remind you, is the present.” And he delightfully engages his love for Moby Dick when he says, “If we don’t allow ourselves to get to know an Ahab – and all effective leaders have a bit of the Ahab in them – we will never begin to understand the true, frightening, and sometimes heartening variety of our world.”
In the conclusion to both his book and his road trips, Nat brings us full circle. “Steinbeck had traveled the country in search of the meaning of America. What he had discovered – that ‘Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners’ – was exactly what Washington had hoped to accomplish by his own travels. And as Melissa and I could now testify, despite all that had happened in the sixty years since Steinbeck’s journey, what he called ‘the American identity’ was still ‘an exact and provable thing.’ Whether it was Miguel in Bristol, that Vietnam vet at a restaurant in Northborough, Vaughnette in Savannah, or Melissa, Dora, and I in our Honda Pilot, we were all what Washington had been striving to create: Americans.”