“Read him.” — George Elliott Clarke, author of I & I and George and Rue
An award-winning author goes looking for the meaning of family and belonging on a glorious wild-goose-chase road trip across middle America
Wangersky’s great-great-grandfather crossed the continent in search of gold in 1849. William Castle Dodge was his name, and he was 22 years old. He wrote a diary of that eventful journey that comes into the author’s hands 160 years later. And typically, quixotically, Wangersky decides to follow Dodge’s westward trail across the great bulging middle of America, not in search of gold but something even less likely: that elusive thing called family.
What ensues becomes this story, by turns hilarious and profound, about a very long trip — by car, in Wangersky’s case, and on mule and foot in Dodge’s. Interweaving his experiences on the road with Dodge’s diary, the author contemplates the human need to hunt for roots and meaning as he — and Dodge — encounter immigrants who risk everything to be somewhere else, while only glimpsing those who are there already and who want to hold onto their claim in the stream of human migration.
Same Ground is a story about what time washes away and what persists — and what we might find, unexpectedly, if we go looking.
About the author
Russell Wangerskyâ€™s most recent book, The Glass Harmonica, won the 2010 BMOWinterset Award and was longlisted for the Relit Awards. His previous book, Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself won Canadaâ€™s largest non-fiction prize, the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Rogers Communications Newfoundland and Labrador Non-Fiction Book Award and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. It was also a finalist for theWriterâ€™s Trust Non- Fiction Prize and was a Globe and Mail Top 100 selection in 2008. His 2006 short story collection The Hour of Bad Decisions was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was shortlisted for the CommonwealthWriterâ€™s Prize, first book, Canada and the Caribbean. It was a Globe and Mail Top100 selection in 2006.Wangersky lives and works in St. Johnâ€™s, where he is an editor and columnist with the St. Johnâ€™s Telegram.
Excerpt: Same Ground: Chasing Family Down the California Gold Rush Trail (by (author) Russell Wangersky)
It’s like watching dominos fall, like a science fiction movie, every member of my mother’s side of the family toppling over and turning to dust. No, less than dust—to nothing, as if they’d never been.
It’s all because of the simplest of things: my wife saying, “If William Dodge had died out here, none of you would ever even have been born.”
And we wouldn’t: if he’d been bitten by a rattlesnake (he almost was) or shot (he almost was) or died of influenza (he almost did), that would have been it right there. That whole side of my family, and me — and my children — simply would never have been.
But he wasn’t. So we were, and we are.
She says it to me first as we sit deep in the blazing High Rock Canyon in Nevada, in the heat-shimmer and dust and scarcity of it, and she says it again as we pass beside the big blue bowl of Walker Lake, heading south towards Vegas.
We drive through an artillery base, the ground on both sides of the road hummocked with row after row of ammunition bunkers — the Hawthorne Army Depot, 2,400 ammunition bunkers — the ground pimpled with mounds of high explosive all around us. I can’t help but suddenly feel just as unsafe as my great-great-grandfather must have felt in 1849.
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk, about how we’re all just binary switches in the great computer of the universe. Ones and zeros, switches that are either turned on, or turned off. That, if North Korea wanted to make a point, the 147,000 acres that comprise the largest ammunition depot in the world might be the right place to start. Ironic that the road we’re driving on is named the Veterans Memorial Highway.
There isn’t any safe ground out here.
Road crews work in the crushing heat, laying down asphalt that runs to the very horizon. Tanker trucks spread water to hold the dust down. We pass a massive array of solar mirrors, directing the bright sun to a collector atop a tower at the center of the mirrored circle, a tower looking for all the world like the Eye of Sauron.
We pass the eerie Clown Motel on the high ground at Tonopah.
This may feel like the beginning of a story.
It’s actually the end.
The beginning is next.
“Russell Wangersky is a natural-born storyteller, and he weaves together two starkly different, yet oddly complementary journeys — past and present, home and away — and does so with great aplomb. Less a travel book than a palimpsest, Same Ground overlays the Gold Rush Trail of ’49 with its modern equivalent, featuring cowboys and cardsharps, dodgy motels and tatty roadside attractions, the ‘natural beauty’ of a slag pour and towns that died of thirst. A thoughtful, meditative look at the open road and where it can lead us.” — Will Ferguson, Giller Prize-winning author of 419 and The Finder
“Russell Wangersky weaves the diary of his ancestor’s trek in 1849 with his own pursuit along the California Gold Rush Trail in a seamless tapestry that melds space and time. His theme is connection: his own lost family, the families he and his wife Leslie meet on the blue highways of America, the moms and pops who run the motels and the diners. Same Ground takes us on a wild chase into the uncharted territories of the heart.” — Wayne Grady, author of The Good Father
“Overlaid like a stereoscope, past and present give Wangersky’s pilgrimage along the Gold Rush trail vivid three-dimensional reality. His great-great-grandfather’s diary is packed with fascinating detail, and the quest to see what he saw opens the old and the new west to our eyes. As the modern couple scuffle around in the desert, the road also reveals the anatomy of a marriage — as all the best journeys do. A thoroughly enjoyable book.” — Marina Endicott, author of The Difference