Lee Gutkind cannot recall his parents ever touching each other. "Not a single handhold; not one kiss," he writes. As a kid, in the 1950s, in the family's Squirrel Hill attic, Gutkind discovered a stash of opera 78s and yellowing, hand-annotated books about politics -- dissonant clues to a father he knew only as a straight-laced orthopedic-shoe salesman prone to violent rages.
"My father told me nothing about his past that other people didn't tell me," says Gutkind today. The author is sitting in a Downtown Starbucks with his own son, Sam, who at 19 has just completed his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University. The byline on Gutkind's latest book also describes its contents: "Lee Gutkind with Sam Gutkind." Truckin' With Sam (State University of New York Press) chronicles their years of "truckin'," exploring the world side by side, often in the cab of a pickup truck.
Gutkind became a father at 47. Sam was 6 when, after his parents' divorce, he moved in full time at his father's Shadyside home.
Gutkind, then head of the University of Pittsburgh's writing program, was determined not to be another distant, emotionless father figure. "I thought it was really important that parents talk to their children," he says. "I just thought I would tell him everything I thought and everything I knew until he didn't want to listen."
For years, the two breakfasted daily at Ritter's Diner, and hit Starbucks after school. They ran a marathon together. And inspired by Gary Paulsen's young-adult novel The Car, when Sam was about 12, they began taking road trips together -- everywhere from two-lane-highway America and the 4,000-mile Alaska-Canada Highway to a grueling hike up Mount Kilimanjaro.
They bonded further over the music and culture of Gutkind's youth. While The Grateful Dead supplied the "truckin'" motif, the pickup playlist was also heavy on Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. "I didn't mind it," says Sam. "Some of it's better than what's on the radio today."
Gutkind, whose nonfiction books include Many Sleepless Nights (about organ transplants) and Almost Human (about robot research at CMU), has lately turned toward more personal writing, like 2003's collection of autobiographical essays, Forever Fat. The founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction is also now a part-time Pittsburgher, spending half his year as a writer-in-residence at Arizona State University.
Sam is a quiet, thoughtful kid, into math and computers. His contributions to Truckin' With Sam include journal excerpts. "Nothing made me nervous except having my name in the title," he says. "Now, that's pretty much who I am."
While his father did all the driving, he says, the long drives have "really made me a much more contemplative and introspective person. It taught me how not to be bored."
"I just like sitting beside my son," says Gutkind. "It's so nice to know he's there."
In June and July, father and son were in Australia and New Zealand -- a work trip for Lee Gutkind, but they planned six days to see the outback and the Great Barrier Reef.
Would Sam truck again? "If it was a good trip."
"Good," says his father, "because I have a couple places in mind."