There’s a Goldilocks factor in choosing a great American road trip book. You want the author, who’ll be your close companion for a long journey, to be just right. Jack Kerouac, to cite one usual suspect, is incandescent but tiring. John Steinbeck is thoughtful but pompous. William Least Heat-Moon is spiritually wise but sad, and Bill Bryson is hilarious but near nasty. It’s undeniably cool to burn up the miles and soak up Dime Box, Texas, or the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Gatlinburg, Tenn., or Minnesota’s Iron Range, or Yellowstone. And yet, it helps to share it with someone you like.
So which books have that ideal mix of personality and geography? They include classics and some notable new titles, too. Let’s turn the ignition with Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways: A Journey into America” (Little Brown, 1982) because it sets the bar for beautiful, pointed prose. After separating from his wife and losing his job, Heat-Moon realizes that “a man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go.” And so this Missouri English professor, of Anglo and Sioux descent, cuts a circle around the country, keeping to the back roads marked blue on old maps. Road-trip lit chestnuts emerge: He names his vehicle (“Ghost Dancing”), he quotes Whitman (“the plenteousness of all”), he chats up strangers (an African-American teen from Selma, Ala., a Hopi college kid, an aging upstate New York farmer) and he lightly researches local history. For instance, he finds an old ad for Pony Express riders, a job so dangerous it says “orphans preferred.”
John Steinbeck hopes to “tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth” in “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” (Viking, 1962). Charley is his poodle, and the first sign of trouble is when you read he only answers to commands in French. The second? Steinbeck names his camper truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. Joe Sixpack, watch out! Steinbeck wears a British naval cap on the East Coast and a Stetson in the West, and there’s an unintentionally funny scene, in North Dakota, where an itinerant actor assumes the goateed writer is “of the profession.” In the last few years, Steinbeck’s been ostensibly outed for making up parts of the book (especially that actor passage). Maybe it was tough to repress his lifelong fiction habit. But there is gold here, real or not: the Maine farmer who paints a big “COW” on his cow, hoping deer hunters won’t mistakenly shoot it; Steinbeck’s love of trailer parks; his amazement at the beauty of the Wisconsin Dells; and his maxim that “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
I happened to scan Charles Dickens’s “American Notes: A Journey” (Fromm, 1985, first published in 1842) right after Steinbeck, so was primed to find affectations. I was rewarded: During his travels in the United States, the Engish author is struck by the “odd sight” of barristers without wigs, and he gamely eats buffalo’s tongue, calling it “an exquisite dainty.” And I quite enjoyed when Dickens politely greets a quack phrenologist named Doctor Crocus. The great man also notes that food is called “fixings” and “[t]here are few words which perform such various duties as this word ‘fix . . . ’ ” He adds: “You beg a porter to collect your luggage, and he entreats you not to be uneasy, for he’ll ‘fix it presently:’ and if you complain of indisposition you are advised to have recourse to Doctor So-and-so who will ‘fix you’ in no time.”
Bill Bryson is also fixed on the old world and new, seeing as he comes from Des Moines (“someone had to”) but now lives in Britain. In “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America” (HarperPerennial, 1989) he pokes fun at Heat-Moon’s love of American place names like Whynot, Miss., and Nameless, Tenn., but by cooking up his own: Dog Water, Coma, Fungus City. He stays in motels with beds so saggy “[i]t was like lying in a wheelbarrow” and eats the local fare of “gristle and baked whiffle ball.” In spite of his irascibility, he is struck by “the instant friendliness” of Americans, “their most becoming trait,” and he can’t muster any jokes about the Grand Canyon. Its vast beauty plum overwhelms him.
Which brings me to the book most steeped in our natural beauty. “Journey into Summer: A Naturalist’s Record of a 19,000-Mile Journey Through the North American Summer” (St. Martin’s, 1990, first published in 1960) is one of a once-renowned quartet (the other books covered spring, fall, and winter) by the Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalist Edwin Way Teale. Out of print now, but findable, this serene, lovely read gives us Teale and his wife, Nellie, puttering their Buick from Franconia Notch, N.H., to Pikes Peak, Colo. For the naturalist, “the most productive pace is a snail’s pace.” And so you meanderingly learn about the voluminous mayflies of Lake Erie, and the sage hens, which are the exact same gray as the sagebrush of their habitat, in South Dakota, and (my total favorite) the social life (all “movement, excitement and humor”) of a prairie dog town. A bittersweet read, all this, since much of what Teale observed has been paved or plowed over since.
Philip Caputo is the latest big-name author to try a road trip book and brings the genre disconcertingly up to date in “The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean” (Henry Holt, 2013). Indeed, the book includes references to the Tea Party and the obesity epidemic, plus technology like the GPS and cellphones, which are “as useless as semaphores” in Nebraska’s remote Sand Hills. Instead of Charley we have Sage and Sky, his two English setters, and instead of Ghost Dancing, we have Ethel and Fred, as in his truck and the 1962 Airstream it tows. Like Teale, Caputo brings his wife along, and their story includes a Lakota shaman/taco entrepreneur and a stint of relief work in tornado-ravaged Alabama.
I have a real soft spot for this last one. “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” (Chicago Review, 2011) gives us Harry and Bess motoring their Chrysler from Missouri to Philadelphia, where Truman has to give a speech in the summer of 1953, just after he left the presidency. Talk about a fly in amber: When Truman left office, former presidents received neither a pension nor Secret Service protection. And so Harry himself drives, partly because the Trumans couldn’t afford to fly (his only income was his $111.96-a-month Army pension). Author Matthew Algeo recreates the trip in which Truman drives 55 miles per hour the whole way at Bess’s insistence. (At one point, a trooper pulls him over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for slowing traffic in the left lane.)
The couple stops at diners. They tip well. They order bowls of fruit. They stay in motels. Truman records gas purchases on a card stashed in the glove compartment. It turns out the road was in Give ’Em Hell Harry’s blood: His first campaign for county judge focused on road improvement, and his father was overseer of roads for Missouri’s Washington township. Newspaper accounts of the trip consistently remark how happy Harry and Bess appeared. One said the ex-president was “as carefree as a schoolboy in summer.” Which is exactly, magnificently, how the great American road trip should make you feel.