Review: Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads by Richard Grant

If you want to know about America, hit the road with its nomads and travellers, and Richard Grant's Ghost Riders, says Jonathan Heawood

Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads
by Richard Grant
308pp, Little, Brown, £16.99

When a Tibetan dignitary visited America for the first time, he sat down beside the Green River in Utah, looked out over the high desert plateau and asked: 'Who are your nomads?' The easy answer is that America lost its nomads in the nineteenth century, when the Plains Indians were destroyed by European diseases and condemned to reservations. But beneath the sedentary surface of the present-day US, Richard Grant has discovered a country crawling with nomads of every variety - bikers, truckers, migrant workers, hobos, the 'Rainbow Family' of acid casualties, cowboys, Comanches and those, like himself, who simply can't stay still. As he admits, the proper definition of nomadism specifies only pastoral herders, but the idea of nomadism inspires a far wider spectrum of wanderers, dreamers and misanthropes.

Travelling around the big, open spaces of the South-west, Grant falls in with a selection of oddballs, mostly men, who have slipped the net of mainstream society and committed themselves to a life on the road. Verging from the quietly reclusive to the noisily violent, these vagrants give Grant a run for his money, although he is quite capable of matching their drinking, and throwing them out of his car when their Chatwinesque musings descend into racist tirades. There is a powerful strain of nomadism running through his own veins: descended from British colonialists, he grew up knowing that he would never stay in England and finally abandoned London when the lowering skies and weekly round of work and pub became too oppressive. Now renting a house in Tucson, Arizona, but living out of his truck, Grant has found the life he dreamed of.

He mixes terse accounts of his days on the road with a more scholarly investigation into the routes of earlier American nomads, such as Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish slaver who was himself enslaved by Indians in the early sixteenth century. De Vaca so impressed his captors with his medical knowledge that, even after making an escape, he was followed by an army of admirers, a 'triumphant religious procession, a travelling revival show', which stayed with him on his journey from the Gulf Coast of Texas across the central plains almost as far as the Sea of Cortez.

In his search for civilisation (by which he was ultimately disgusted), de Vaca was probably following the ancient trading or hunting routes, later used by pioneers and mountain men, which are even now submerged beneath modern freeways. 'Beneath the asphalt of this West Texas highway lies an Indian trail thousands of years old,' says Grant, delighting in the continuity of such trails, and the notion that every wild-eyed tramp is unwittingly traversing an ancient route.

For, although modern nomads are marked by their reluctance to participate in civil society, they are, Grant maintains, living out a central tenet of the American dream, which clings far more tightly to the idea of the Road than it does to the abstract symbolism of the Statue of Liberty. De Vaca was one of the first Europeans to go partially native, 'a civilised man living as a wilderness wanderer, a hybrid of Old World and New', but in the centuries to come, Grant suggests, 'a similar type would become well established on the North American frontiers'. De Vaca was, in this respect, one of the first Americans.

Grant's scholarship is erratic - sixteenth-century Spaniards might bristle at being termed 'medieval' - but his talent for storytelling is unarguable. Indeed, as an inveterate traveller, talking the talk is almost as important for him as walking the walk. His seemingly obscure topic takes him roaming into territory of more widespread interest - the history of Americanism and the clash between fundamentally incompatible human impulses, for mobility and stability - but he always keeps one ear open for his travelling companions' tall tales. Grant manages to keep a straight face (albeit eyebrows raised) in the presence of incredible myths of Apaches still holed up in the mountains, and the 'first-hand' account of a horrible accident involving a truck driver and a 20ft steel pipe which he hears in seven different States. The chief wares of the nomad are stories and Grant has a carload of these.

He tells us that, among the mountain men, a 'grunting roar, usually rendered in the literature as "wagh!"', served as an all-purpose exclamation and noise of affirmation, 'copied by the Indians from a noise made by an assertive grizzly bear, and roughly translatable to the modern "yo!"'. At times, the reader may be tempted to exclaim 'wagh!' as one tall tale leads to another, and the central promise of the book - to escort us among America's contemporary nomads - slips into something rather different, but no less fascinating: a study of the tensions within American culture.

Nomads disappear in the rift that has always existed in America between federal authority and personal freedom. Grant pursues them into this fissure and brings to light a range of darkly romantic wanderers who strayed from the American mainstream while exemplifying the American Dream.

· To order Ghost Riders for £14.99 plus p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989


Jonathan Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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