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Five Great American Roadtrip Books That Aren't “On the Road”

American road trip on a dirt road under the skies.
Some great writers have an affinity for dirt and other backroads.

Roadtrips are like snowflakes or fingerprints. Each are familiar, but none match. And for those of us bit by that kinetic fever — that unbearable urge to move — nothing beats one. We go forward at our own will, where and when we want, and forge out our own unique road print across an endless web of roads. The only real debate is whether to ask directions when we get lost.

Or what to read before we go.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road remains the iconic roadtrip book for most people. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best. Nor is, I think, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, or William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.

Here are five lesser-known alternatives to help amp up your adventure.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson

Quotable: “Out here in this crud-bucket motel in the middle of a great empty plain I began for the first time to feel at home.”

In Lost Continent, Bryson — who grew up in Des Moines because “someone had to” — returns after years in England, and his father’s death, to rediscover the “magic places of my youth” at the tail end of the Reagan area. His 13,978-mile route generally sticks with back roads and American icons: the homes of Mark Twain, Lincoln, Elvis, FDR, the Amish; plus college towns, Gettysburg, Selma, the Rockies, Custer’s Last Stand. All the while, he’s searching for “Amalgam,” the perfect American town he sees on TV and film.

With cheeky wit weaned on years of British life, Bryson leaves few prisoners. Iowan women look like “elephants dressed in children’s clothes.” Michigan is “shaped like an oven mitt and is often as exciting.” Of impression-less Delaware, “I could feel it vanishing from my memory as I went.” Even the great Mississippi appears “flat and dull.” Eventually he concludes, “America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly.”

He gets away with this because he so often is moved by the exceptions: “inexpressively beautiful” Appalachia, Iowa farms “hysterical with color and light,” Vermont rides offering “a day trip to heaven.” Even Colonial Williamsburg somehow inspires him.

When he returns to Iowa after his first month on the road, he writes, “I actually felt my heart quicken. I was home. This was my state.” And thinking of Iowans again, “I was seized with a huge envy for these people… their sense of community… And I felt guilty for mocking them.”

Cross Country, Robert Sullivan

Quotable: “On the road, everything is a museum.”

Sullivan — who once spent nights in New York City alleys watching rats — is an obsessive roadtrip nerd, who’s crossed the country by car 30 times. And Cross Country — filled with hand-drawn maps and photocopies from his journal — recounts the entire culture and origins of the American roadtrip as Sullivan rides from Oregon to New York with his family.

For anyone who’s covered any distance by car, it’s illuminating and fun: learning how “motels” were born, where to play golf on a toxic waste dump, and how tips stagecoach drivers gave riders in 1877 apply to back-seat drivers today. And also that we’re driving in the “golden age of coffee lid development,” as seen in the evolution of coffee lids used at gas station on the interstate, from the ill-conceived Push & Drink to the Solo Traveler, the Optima, the wonderful DLX12R!

American road and yellow line.
Crossing the country and making discoveries along the way is an obsession for writers such as Robert Sullivan.

The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quotable: Zelda (early on) “Gosh, we’re smart… this is the best thing ever done,” (later) “the joys of motoring are more or less fictional.”

In 1920, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald decided on a whim to drive to Montgomery, Alabama for a breakfast of biscuits and peaches in Zelda’s hometown. Riding in a 1918 Marmon dubbed the “Rolling Junk,” it took eight days and 1200 miles to complete the task. (They returned by train.)

Typical of the early roadtrip days, much of the way is riddled with car problems. They’re barely out of Connecticut before turning to their spare tire “Lazarus.” Later the car body had to be welded back together. Mostly this is handled in good spirit, perhaps because of the grand historic inns the Fitzgerald’s ultimately steer for (some that are still open: e.g. Princeton’s Nassau Inn, DC’s Willard Hotel, or Greensboro’s O Henry Hotel).

The pace picks up in the south, as Fitzgerald drives through a forested “green subway,” and tree branches that reach over the car like the “faintly tired hauteur of a fine lady’s hand.” He captures the Southern light too, a half a century after the Civil War: “The sun was at home here, touching with affection the shattered ruins of once lovely things.”

(More troubling is Fitzgerald’s “unforgivably breezy” attitude, as Paul Theroux writes, of African Americans met along the way.)

Great Plains, Ian Frazier

Quotable: “A person can be amazingly happy on the Great Plains… Once happiness gets rolling in this open place, not much stops it.”

Frazier moved to Montana to write a novel, but became obsessed with the plains instead. In a series of whirlwind roadtrips — often sleeping in his car — he probes the past and present. (Frazier’s fond of driving. For Travels in Siberia he foregoes the legendary Trans-Siberian to drive across Russia.) What he comes up with here is something of a guidebook to curiosity, set in a 500,000-square mile land long mistaken for the great American desert.

Many of his experiences in this 214-page book lead him on/off Indian Reservations. He describes the sound of the Sioux language as “soft and rippling, like something you might hear through a bead curtain.” And picks up hitchhikers, like Jim Yellow Earring, who leads him to the site of Sitting Bull’s cabin site, where Jim offers to rip out a rattlesnake tongue as a keepsake. (Frazier declines.)

His paragraph of his love of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is alone worth reading the book.

Roads: Driving America's Great Highways, Larry McMurtry

Quotable: “As it is with women, so it is with roads. There are too many nice ones.”

Steinbeck famously predicted in Travels with Charley that interstates would make it possible to cross the county and “not see a single thing,” but McMurtry finds nearly the opposite. In this quick 206-page travelogue, he sticks on the interstates, or “America’s great highways,” picking and choosing preferred stretches (which he likens to rereading select passages from great novels).

Often the glory he finds regards big skies and room to contemplate. Once he extends a Kansas drive for an interstate sunset of a wheat-colored light “developing purplish tinges along the edges, like bruises on the sky.” And he fills a bland day on I-70 through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois — near areas where “even the arrival of the outlet malls is a blessing “ — to answer “at least to my own satisfaction, the question about where the Midwest begins.” (He votes for Columbus, Ohio.)

America can never look the same, he concludes, contrasting Steinbeck’s prediction. “The lights will always differ… a thousand McDonald’s will never make Boston feel like Tucson.”

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks, talked travel on TV shows like the Today Show and CNN Headline News, and writes regularly for National Geographic Traveler. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Related Topics
Independent and Solo Travel
Travel Writing
 More Articles by Robert Reid
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