Ronald Colman, David Colman
Inkwell Press, 2017
More than 40 years ago, an American President was about to become infamous as another man got on a bicycle in their shared hometown for a cross-country journey. Over the summer of 1974, Richard Nixon would travel the world but eventually slink back to California in disgrace as the only US President to ever resign from office. At the same time, Ronald Colman set out on his bike from Whittier, Californnia to visit his brother in New York state. Colman kept extensive diaries of his trek, and Leaving Whittier, edited by his nephew David, is a snapshot of an America both hopeful and anxious, angry and caring.
Colman’s journals don’t so much show us a forgotten America as shine a light on the temperature of the nation during this time. Nixon coined the phrase ‘silent majority’ to describe the people who didn’t protest or dissent but rather supported him and his policies. What makes Colman’s travelogue so engaging is that we read of encounters with the silent majority but it is nothing that Nixon thinks it is. The people we see in Leaving Whittier are genuinely giving, talkative, odd, banal, at once contemptuous and supportive of their President, and representative of their time.
Interspersed between passages from Ronald Colman’s journals is his nephew David Colman’s parallel history documenting President Nixon’s own travels abroad as well as supplemental history of the places Ronald passes through. We come to realize as Colman bikes he is at once immersed in the nation yet so distant from Nixon and his growing scandal. David Colman creates a great dialogue with his uncle’s work that’s explicative and evocative like here (Ronald first then David) where the two casually confront a forgotten atrocity:
Fort Sumner, pop 1200, founded 1906. Before it was a town, it was a fort, and the endpoint for Navahos & Mescalero Apaches rounded up by Kit Carson and delivered here for an experiment in agriculture. 1864. Some of the Indians walked from as far away as Fort Defiance, on the AZ-MN border–400 miles. 9000 Indians were brought here, 3000 died. The experiment failed.
[The captive Indians did not come voluntarily. In their tradition it’s called The Long March. The march was bade enough but once they were installed on the Bosque Redondo Reservation, they fell victim to disease, crop failure, bad water, and Comache raids. The fort and reservation were abandoned when the Treaty of 1868 allowed the Navahos to return to their native lands.]
This is just one of many moments in an unorthodox road trip.
When Colman finally reaches his destination, we feel that we know the man as well as the country he’s trekked across. Accomplishing this is what sets quality travelogues apart from mere memoir. When he returns to Whittier via flight having dismantled his bicycle, packaged it, and sent it by mail, we realize the depth of the change in the landscape. Nixon’s disgrace has not only singled a cultural shift, but also a very individual and intimate one. So when Colman’s journal ends, we have changed along with him and the country. But when we read David Colman’s conclusion to Leaving Whittier and his uncle’s bizarre death (struck by plane debris early in 1975), we feel a profound sense of loss.
David Colman has put together an excellent travelogue of his late uncle’s journey. It is a work that stands strong as a personal testimony and fascinating historical document.