The Road

Nearly every American hungers to move.

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Dear readers, last week I finally got to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine – I took a cross-country road trip. From crossing the Mississippi to seeing the Grand Canyon to driving right up to the Pacific, some part of me has always been pulled westward. Now I’ve been around the country before, but never “properly” – this time two of my oldest friends and I did it right. Attention to travel results in not getting much reading done. The advantage of that was it gave me time to reflect, as many of my idols had done before me, on the beauty and expansiveness of our country, and what it means to seek the freedom of the open road. This post, as a result, is about the books that led me to this trip.

Travels with CharleyJohn Steinbeck

Steinbeck is my man. Not only did he write the greatest American novel of all time (East of Eden, natch), he also wrote what is in my opinion the definitive travel book. Perhaps it’s because of my admiration for the writer, I find Steinbeck’s ramblings about America with his poodle companion highly engaging. It’s not always optimistic, and not always smooth, but his travels feel incredibly relative – impressive considering he is a deteriorating man of 58 at the beginning of his journey. Mostly, Steinbeck’s reasons for exploration are admirable, he wishes to view the country again because he feels out of touch with it, that he has been writing about an America he no longer understands. Relative, indeed.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceRobert M. Pirsig

Love it or hate it, Persig created a definitive road trip read with this work. It’s also responsible for a group of people still being familiar with the term “chautauqua”. I’m torn about this book, but it does serve as a good travel book, as well as an introductory philosophy book. Pirsig is a smart dude, but I find myself not relating to his world views (is someone being too rational a fault?). To each their own, we all find something different on the road.

On the RoadJack Kerouac

Ah, Kerouac. Friends are oft-surprised when I tell them I’m not a huge Keroauc guy, but it’s mostly because I never got On the Road like some others claimed to. It certainly didn’t change my life, but what is infectious about it is the search. That drive and lust for adventure is romantic, no matter the consequences.

Friends, I guess my point is this: these are great writers and thinkers who wrote wonderful books about traveling, but they aren’t necessarily “travel writers” (nothing against the genre of writers that includes Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, who are wonderful in their own respect). Instead, they were inspired to write by how they lived, and it’s a characteristic I think all writers should carry. Travel this country, then try to put it into words – it’s where some greatness lies. In fact, this may just be a truth I believe we all should live by – do a little traveling, and see if you can find the words to describe it.

Big names such as McMurtry, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway, Orwell, Huxley, and Mark Twain have all tried in their own way to describe their time traveling, here or abroad, but those names should not intimidate future writers from creating their own adventures. In my opinion, the best book about American travel has yet to be written. Perhaps it is something we struggle to describe, I know I’ve had a hard time expressing just how important this trip was to me. What do you think, dear readers? Is there a book, or an author, I’ve foolishly omitted? Am I wrong in my short-sighted opinions about travel writers? Post below for interactive fun!

– Tony

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Road

  1. Have read Travels with Charley at least a half dozen times – one of my all-time favorite books. But another very worthy of mention is Blue Highways (1982) by William Least Heat Moon. “On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue.”

  2. Tara

    It’s not necessarily a travel book, but one of my favorite graphic novels in recent years is Local by Brian Wood: http://catalog.einetwork.net/search~S1?/i 9781934964002 It tells twelve interconnected short stories, each taking place in a different North American city, chronicling a young vagabond’s search for home. It’s also a nice coming-of-age story with lovely artwork.

  3. One travel author that doesn’t seem to be recognized very often is John James Audubon, better known for his drawings of American birds than for his travel journals and memoirs. Parts of it can be slow reading, but at the same time, it’s a fascinating insight into travel on the Mississippi river and early forays into the American wilderness. His writings, and prints of his artwork, are collected in a book simply titled “John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings.”

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