On the open road: Travel far, via book, this summer

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Like reading, traveling opens up new places and experiences for us. The marvel of the travelogue is that we can be sitting in the dentist’s office, in the break room at work, or in an armchair on a rainy day and find ourselves miles away because of the words of a writer. The best of these authors share themselves with us. As Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”

The road trip novel is a subsection of the travel genre and is probably the most quintessentially American. The United States is a vast and varied country. Our history has been one of expansion; Lewis and Clark, covered wagons, and the famed route 66 are all ingrained in our culture, not to mention the love of the automobile. Who hasn’t dreamed of jumping in the car and hitting the open road?

Travels with Charley: In Search of America
by John Steinbeck
In a truck outfitted for living and named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s donkey, Steinbeck crosses the country with his dog Charley. “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.” Steinbeck wants to know better the America of which he writes. “I soon discovered that if a wayfaring stranger wishes to eavesdrop on a local population the places for him to slip in and hold his peace are bars and churches. But some New England towns don’t have bars, and church is only on Sunday. A good alternative is the roadside restaurant where men gather for breakfast before going to work or going hunting.”

Blue Highways: A Journey into America
by William Least Heat Moon
With his job and marriage in trouble, Heat Moon sets out to travel the back roads of the United States, those roads colored blue on old highway maps. “With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.” Heat Moon has the incomparable ability to depict not only places but the characters that inhabit them. “On a front porch threatened with a turbulence of blooming vegetation, a man stood before his barbecue grill, the ghostly blue smoke rising like incense. His belly a drooping bag, his face slack, he watched the coals burn to a glow.”

Driving by Moonlight: A Journey Through Love, War, and Infertility
by Kristin Henderson
Henderson’s road trip with her dog Rosie in a Corvette paints a backdrop for her memoir. The book opens on September 19, 2001 and her chaplain husband has just shipped out with the Marines. While driving to visit far-flung family and friends, Henderson reminisces about her marriage, her faith, and her struggle to get pregnant. As a Quaker she tries to reconcile her pacifism with her marriage to a military man. “The instinct to make war is perhaps as ancient and irrational as the drive to make babies, as universal as the longing to know why we are here—the longing for the Light, for God. Neither communism nor materialism have managed to put an end spiritual yearning. Even the sufferings of war fail to stop people from having babies.

If making war is as fundamental a part of being human as longing for God and making babies, part of the natural order, how can we ever hope to replace it with permanent peace?”

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
by Bill Bryson
Bryson, a humorous and sometimes curmudgeonly writer, traverses the country with the perspective of an expat, having grown up in Iowa and then lived in England for many years. At first he hopes to discover the perfect small American town. “The place I was looking for would be an amalgam of all those towns I had encountered in fiction. Indeed, that might well be its name—Amalgam, Ohio, or Amalgam, North Dakota.” He fondly mocks American culture: “Generally speaking—which is of course always a dangerous thing to do, generally speaking—Americans revere the past only as long as there is some money in it somewhere and it doesn’t mean going without air-conditioning, free parking and other essential conveniences.” And he has some fun at tourist attractions: “So I went through the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and I savored every artifact and tasteless oddity. It was outstanding. I mean honestly, where else are you going to see a replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, made entirely of chicken bones?”

Even when we go no further than our back porch, travel writers can carry us to faraway locales and even portray the familiar in a new light. The Rutland Free Library has the books mentioned above as well as guidebooks to provide practical assistance if you plan to hit the road yourself. What’s your favorite road trip tale?
Happy reading!
Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at the Rutland Free Library.
E-MAIL: janet@rutlandfree.org