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Art-world rebel Damien Hirst, by the numbers; cultivating a taste for greatness in Ethiopian coffee; on the road with the spirit of Mark Twain; a Swiss watchmaker whose time has come; woking and talking with Katie Leclerc


On the trail of one of America’s greatest writers


A Dodge Caravan pulls into Seattle on a typically damp afternoon. The driver, 70-year-old Northwestern University professor Loren Ghiglione, and his two traveling companions get out and take a good long stretch. It’s especially well deserved, given that they’ve been on the road for 85 days — eating at roadside buffets, drinking gas station coffee, crashing at Super 8s — all in the name of one man: Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.

Along with Northwestern junior Dan Tham and recent graduate Alyssa Karas, Ghiglione launched this 13,500-mile odyssey from Twain’s hometown of Florida, Mo. (current population: zero), stitching together a 30-city itinerary inspired by routes that the author took in the 1850s and 1860s. Their goal: to explore identity in America by interviewing people along the way about race, immigration and sexuality for a book Ghiglione is working on.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Twain, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can use him to get people to think about serious issues,'” Ghiglione says, noting that Twain once wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” (In fact, Twain himself had been an admitted bigot before becoming enlightened through travel.)

Ghiglione recruited Karas and Tham through a student email blast and received a grant to fund the adventure. Their stops included the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City (“It was 11 a.m. and everyone was sleeping,” recalls Karas); a barbershop on Chicago’s South Side frequented by President Obama (Ghiglione got a trim); and an old Nevada mining town, where Tham celebrated his 21st birthday (the locals baked him a carrot cake).

“A lot of times, we just dropped in on people and hoped for the best,” says Karas, who squeezed an interview out of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. after arriving at his office unannounced. “We always finished the day saying, ‘Wow, we got lucky.'”

Except, that is, in San Francisco, where thieves broke into the Caravan and stole Ghiglione’s and Karas’ laptops, as well as Karas’ suitcase. Fortunately, Tham’s computer, which held the bulk of the trip’s video footage, was spared, and Karas’ luggage was eventually found with her belongings intact — mostly. “My clothes were in there,” she says, “but the thieves took my biography of Mark Twain.” Perhaps they were planning a road trip of their own. — NICOLE FREHSEE

One Response to “Dispatches”

  1. James Hayes-Bohanan Says:
    March 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for including this report — far too few people recognize the human stories behind coffee and the many other consumables that the world economy brings to us from around the world.

    It is appropriate that you use the phrase “strike gold.” It brings to mind the 2006 film Black Gold, also about the high stakes involved in finding premium markets for Ethiopian coffee.

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