The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas
History isn’t always a forward march; sometimes it “resembles a relay race,” said Michael Upchurch in The Boston Globe. In Eric Rutkow’s colorful book about a dreamed-of road or railway to link the Americas from Alaska to Chile, a repeating pattern emerges. An influential person takes up the project and drums up support; laborers break ground, but progress is suddenly halted by a financial panic, a military coup, or an encounter with insurmountable mountains or a disease-ridden swamp. It’s “a testament to Rutkow’s skills at distilling information” that the players never blur, and that our hopes for the project rise every time shovels hit soil.
The “engrossing” story begins with a seasick U.S. diplomat, said Charles Morris in The Wall Street Journal. Five days into an 1866 journey from Buenos Aires to New York, a nauseated Hinton Rowan Helper vowed to push for a land-based route to connect the cities. Helper had little useful expertise, but before long U.S. rail barons also began lobbying Washington to fund a Pan-American railway, seeing a shortcut to Central America’s agricultural riches. Washington’s focus later shifted to building the Panama Canal, but the rise of the automobile sparked talk in the early ’20s of a Pan-American highway, which won the endorsement of U.S. presidents from Harding to Nixon. In the 1980s, a lack of funding combined with Latin American skepticism about U.S. motives stopped the project just 65 miles short of completion.
Rutkow spends more time at conferences than with the earthmovers, said Tom Zoellner in The New York Times. He’s most interested in the dream of Pan-Americanism. Still, he’s a graceful writer, and his story “finds its highest velocity” near the end, when it focuses on Nixon’s failed push to finish the road and a teacher’s recent bid to bushwhack across the key missing stretch of highway: a swath of swampland and forest on the Panama-Colombia border. For now, like the Pan-American idea, “the road remains frustratingly snapped in the middle.” ■