Setting out on this journey, we had a stack of books we each wanted to read. A decent amount of storage was dedicated to housing these volumes that ran the gamut from novels to memoir to song lyrics and even a volume of poetry. The truth is that life on the road whilst producing a podcast leaves little time for extended reading sessions. Instead of relaxing under a tree with a hefty book in hand, I chipped away at my reading while sitting in parking lots when it was Miracle’s turn to shop. But one book in particular came to be a constant companion and was truly a pleasure to read while cruising around the country in our VW bus. That book is Jerry Steimel’s Chasing Zorba.
Chasing Zorba has a subtitle that reads “A Journey of Self-discovery.” It’s a tagline that is equal parts accurate and a metaphor. As the narrator and main character in the book, Steimel focuses on the realization of his lifelong dream to drive an air-cooled VW cross-country. The coast-to-coast trek started some decades ago and came to a very premature and inglorious end. Now retired and with a new old VW in hand, Jerry strikes out on the road to realize his dream. But the self who is being is discovered is less him and more America.
Through a series of really well done flashbacks, Jerry draws some crystal clear connections from the Vietnam era when a corrupt president, war, and counterculture protests consumed the news and today—when a corrupt president, a never-ending war, and protests consume the news. Steimel is not so much analyzing the events of yesteryear and today as he is discovering the stuff that is the American psyche—the things that make the bones of our country, whether it is good or bad.
Steimel knows himself. In the years since his first aborted VW trip, he had a career as a social worker, raised a family, and pursued other interests. For him personally, there’s less discovery and more recovery and uncovering. As a social worker and deep blue liberal, he wears his heart on his sleeve and sees the connections between coal mining and labor issues, between 9/11 and the xenophobia of today. As he discovers more about America, he is able to make sense out of the larger chains of events that have been the plot arcs beyond his control like the Vietnam draft or the simple use of electricity.
Where Steimel’s prose shines through the most though is the moments of personal uncovering. He spends a good deal of the book focusing on a place most of us would probably rather skip altogether—Kansas. I’ve driven the length and breadth of Kansas multiple times, so I feel qualified in my praise of Steimel when I say he has done the impossible and made Kansas entertaining. (Well, not the state itself. If you go there don’t expect that Jerry has turned it into a waterpark or something. It is still flat, featureless, and smells largely bovine.) Kansas provides us with some of the best flashbacks of the book and they do the high-wire act of being alternately humorous and harrowing.
You don’t have to be a VW enthusiast to appreciate Steimel’s adventure or his writing. So, if you’re heading out on the road—or if you have an interest in history, or if you love memoirs—this book is definitely worth reading.