Reading the Signs and Other Itinerant Essays
Etruscan Press / 2022 / $18 / 384 pp
Reviewed by John Mark Jennings / January 2023
Across twenty-three essays, Stephen Benz takes the reader to places near and far and across time. The narratives—some brief, others more far-reaching—are organized into three sections titled "Home Ground," "Journey through the States," and "Travelers." The author’s style is self-revealing and deeply personal, and although each can be viewed as a stand-alone travel essay, the collection has much in common with the memoir. Told in this way, the book’s travel motif is elevated beyond the descriptive.
In the first section, Benz explores his experiences as a college student, as a summer truck driver during a wheat harvest, as a puzzled father, and as an empty-nester leaving behind a home with twenty years of memories. As a rookie during harvest season, for instance, the narrator reveals his foibles: "[My boss] came to regard me the way he might regard the runt of the hound dog litter—a poor little feller who wasn’t ever going to figure out how to pick up the scent and give chase . . . I was laughed at, sworn at.”
In the second section of the book, Benz takes us on an offbeat road trip, mostly abandoning the interstates for little-known towns and historic sites that challenge how society looks at itself. A brief stop in the hamlet of Iuka, Mississippi, underscores his theme: “You could call [it] a two-bit town, a no-account town, Nowheresville, or whatever, but in fact, like so many places in America, the local history is deep and telling.”
Frequently stopping to read the historical markers as he weaves his way across the Deep South and American West, Benz finds more truth in the backstory of historic sites than in the roadside markers and visitor centers he encounters. For example, at a stop at Fort Laramie along the Oregon Trail, he is disheartened by the national historic site’s re-enactors: “You might hear Ennio Morricone themes, and you half expect Clint Eastwood or John Wayne to mosey out of the reconstructed barracks.” Interpretive signs at the fort minimize the sacrifices of pioneers and make light of the forced relocation of Native Americans. Moreover, significant portions of the trail are today fenced off and inaccessible, part of what Benz calls the “blot and blight” of modern land use.
The writer, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico, shines most when he independently researches the hidden truths behind the venues he visits. (An excellent bibliography is included). Benz employs investigative research as he explores the demise of California’s iconic Owens Valley, where in 1913, the Owens River was rerouted to supply water to Los Angeles, 230 miles away. The construction of a man-made aqueduct resulted in a land grab that left the Paiute tribe culturally and economically emaciated, and, absent its water, the Valley reverted to a near wasteland. In the same manner, the author shines a light on the impact of the world’s largest open pit mine at Bingham Canyon, Utah, its backstory buried in Park Service boosterism, which celebrates “the richest hole on Earth.” He finds that while “it must have [once seemed like] God’s handiwork in nature, [settlers] also heard the biblical dictum granting man dominion over the earth. . . . What we see now—what we have inherited—is a topography altered by the culture that the pioneers brought.”
More nuanced and complex, the history of one of the Civil War’s most venerable battlefields, Shiloh National Military Park, is explored first by personal observation and then via third-party research. Benz demonstrates, convincingly, that history depends on who is writing it, rather than on objective facts.
In the final third of the book, Benz profiles individual travelers whose stories reflect the impact of wanderlust on our perception of the world. The settings are diverse: ecotourism in Costa Rica, the travel escapades of a crotchety uncle, an entrepreneur chasing a ‘round-the-world speed record on the supersonic Concorde, and the imagined lives of those housed at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, to name a few. In these and other locales, Benz searches for a “communion” between himself, those he befriends, and the places where his characters’ lives unfold.
Although self-interrogation is uneven in the collection, when Benz pauses to meditate on the effect place has on one’s self-awareness, the essays are strongest. As he looks back to one of his college jobs, for example, he uncovers a new appreciation for the blue-collar workers he met and the pragmatic way they solved problems. In eastern Washington’s Palouse region, he begins to see the land differently, comparing his feelings to transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, or poets like Dickinson and Whitman. Like them, Benz imagines the natural world on new terms: “with difference and depth, rather than monotony and flatness.” Using vivid characterizations and an ear for dialogue, the narrator unearths life lessons of humility, acceptance of others, and an appreciation for the inherent contradictions in human nature. He finds that he knows less about the younger generation than he cares to admit, and he witnesses his own children teaching him about contemporary culture, a role reversal he never anticipated.
Reading The Signs is both a journey to far-flung historic and foreign sites, as well as a personal expedition across the narrator’s past. In many ways the essay collection is a critical exploration of each site’s cultural significance. What do we really know about the places we hold sacred as a nation? What can we discover in the personal stories of those different than ourselves? Does our perspective change when we visit towns and villages off the beaten path?
Many of the essays in the collection have appeared previously as standalone reportage in newspapers, literary journals, and magazines. Because of that lineage, the book, at times, lacks a unifying narrative. Bridges between each essay are hardly attempted, save for brief quotations by other writers that set off each of the three sections. However, the book’s coda is an atmospheric and candid roundup of the narrator’s ruminations on travel. Benz points to the “imponderable size of the universe,” and asks, “Just what are we to make of these facts?” Wisely, he doesn’t attempt to answer that question, but allows us, through his essays, to ponder the megacosm with him.
John Mark Jennings is a writer and photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His creative work often explores the intersection of travel and culture in the Southwest. John is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. His work has appeared in The Remington Review, Inklette, and Moonflake Press. Website: www.johnmarkjennings.com.