Bookmonger: Expanding horizons in the American West

“Touring the West with Leaping Lena 1925” by W.C. Clark, edited by David Dary

“Narrating the Landscape” by Matthew N. Johnston

Summer is road trip season! What’s on the TripTik for you? To whet your appetite for this brand of adventure, I recommend the thoroughly agreeable new travelogue called “Touring the West with Leaping Lena, 1925.”

In June of 1925, newspaper editor Willie Chester Clark, his wife Nevada, and their 30-year-old daughter Florence departed from their home in West Virginia to undertake a four-month circuit of the country in a brand new Chevrolet.

Clark outfits the rig with a heavy front bumper, a grub box, a luggage carrier and a “melodious horn.” He dubs the automobile “Leaping Lena” — an oft-used nickname for cars at that time, although throughout the journey he uses male pronouns when referring to the vehicle.

As this plucky family sallies forth across the continent, Clark keeps an account detailing road conditions, accommodations, the attractions they visit, the people they meet, the expenses they incur, the crops they pass by, and the miles they cover in each daily “leap.”

He pounds this report out every night while sitting on a campstool in front of the car, using the car’s reinforced bumper as a makeshift desk for his typewriter.

It turns out that the Clarks have roots in the Pacific Northwest — Clark had homesteaded there a quarter-century earlier, and he and Nevada were married in Spokane. They have plenty of relatives to visit and respects to pay when they go through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In Tacoma, they stay for some time with family while making forays all about Puget Sound — attending a parade in Seattle, climbing to the summit of Mt. Rainier, and picnicking at Point Defiance.

Having experienced dozens of flat tires by this time in the journey, Clark has abundant praise for the roads of this region — commenting enthusiastically on the Pacific Highway (“than which there is no better”) and the Columbia River Highway (“in a class by itself as a scenic route”).

Editor David Dary’s footnotes help to illuminate the Clarks’ story, and there’s a nice selection of vintage photos that will help readers picture the conditions of cross-country travel back in the day.

“Touring the West with Leaping Lena 1925” was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I’d like to give quick mention to another work from the same publisher.

“Narrating the Landscape” goes back a bit further in time to focus on how America’s westward expansion in the 19th century was influenced by new forms of print publications.

Matthew N. Johnston, an art history professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, contrasts traditional artistic expression — portraits, landscapes, and the like — with a new wave of print communications that reflected a faster, industrializing way of life.

Johnston’s presentation may be too esoteric for some readers, and some of the reproductions of paintings are too small to appreciate the details he references in his critique, but this is fascinating material.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.