For years, a friend and I have been engaged in an informal contest (so informal, in fact, that it may exist only in my mind) to see who will be first to visit all 50 states. With only Alaska, Idaho, and Montana remaining on my list, it looks as if I’ll win. In the spirit of sportsmanship, I will grant that my rival, an urban planner, has been more thorough in his explorations: He gets the flavor of a state at its museums and monuments, its national parks and ballparks, its finest restaurants and most mephitic dive bars. He has written over 500 Yelp reviews. And he is utterly fearless. In Delaware, he managed to find us not only the state’s worst meal (slow-cooked muskrat) but also its worst entertainment venue, a strip club that made the biblical injunction “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” sound like a no-brainer.
Still, in one area of United States travel, I brook no challenge to my supremacy. I’ve done more driving in our nation than anyone I know. Of American Airlines, my rival Yelps that “if you were inspired by Swedenborg to experience the majesty of Hell firsthand, this is a good way to start.” Yet he insists on flying most everywhere he goes, and by my lights, he’s been cheating—cheating himself, at any rate. “As the country of the automobile,” Thomas Swick writes in his marvelous new book The Joys of Travel, “we are also the country of the road trip. . . . The road trip has long been an American ideal, and its apotheosis is the one that goes from coast to coast. We come in two types: those who’ve driven cross-country and those who dream of doing so.”
Swick is too polite to mention the mixture of pity and disdain with which those of us in the former category, also known as “real Americans,” regard those in the latter. To establish my bona fides: I’ve driven cross-country five times. My personal record for nonstop solo driving is 1,052 miles (Omaha to West Wendover, Nevada), and with a copilot, 1,701 (Dallas to Hartford), toward the end of which my best friend sobbed uncontrollably at the sunrise and I swerved across several lanes to avoid hitting a hallucinated sofa.
I feel about taking to the Eisenhower Interstate System as Ishmael felt about going to sea: “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen.” It is a tonic for heartbreak and ennui. It is also a foolproof cure for ignorance of one’s homeland, of one’s fellow Americans. It would be a severe overstatement to say that our country has never been more politically or culturally polarized: A visit to Gettysburg or Appomattox puts things into perspective. But between Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, the 2016 election, and the Great Dismal Swamp known as “Internet comments,” it is clear that we are very polarized indeed. There is nothing quite like a road trip, provided that one meets and listens to people, to encourage a deeper empathy for Americans, what they experience, and what they believe.
That is not to say that encountering these people guarantees that one will fall in love with them. My rival’s Yelp reviews can be vicious, not only to restaurants, bars, and attractions but also to their patrons. At least he knows whereof he speaks. He does not rely on caricatures sketched by partisan media outlets. Though raised in Brooklyn Heights and educated at elite schools, I suspect that he would pass with flying colors Murray’s famous “bubble quiz,” devised to gauge one’s insulation or isolation from mainstream America. He has earned the right to his attitudes.
My own expeditions have earned me an attitude of political and cultural tolerance, if not thoughtless acceptance. Having gained a sense of America’s essential bigness—of what it is for a nation to contain over 300 million souls—I recognize that any wish for consensus is a pipe dream. America is too vast, too varied, and too free to waste time wishing that people might agree on what is good for them and toe a line. America is unruly, even crazy, and I’ve grown defiantly proud of that.
I was raised in rural northern Connecticut, in a cowtown just south of the Southwick Jog, the notch in the state’s border with Massachusetts. Though an adolescent devotee of Jack Kerouac, I had little desire, even as college loomed, to leave my little town. It took moving to Illinois, just outside of Chicago, for my senior year of high school to awaken my curiosity. I learned to drive not on the bucolic backroads of the Farmington Valley but on the Edens and the Dan Ryan. I negotiated, for the first time in my life, the vagaries of public transportation. I saw ostentatious wealth and extreme poverty, sometimes side by side. How could they keep me down on the farm after that?
During that spring, I drove to New Orleans with friends. Why my neurotic parents let me spend spring break on Bourbon Street is a question beyond all conjecture. No sooner had we departed Cook County than we were doing everything that we had promised not to do and some things that nobody had thought to make us promise not to do—such as firing Roman candles (Kerouac’s influence, no doubt) at the lone car following us in the dead of night across the Pontchartrain Causeway. Our comeuppances came early and often: We fell victim to street hustlers and were robbed of our beer and bravado by wharf security guards. The trip was an invaluable lesson in just how green, how dumb, we really were.
In The Joys of Travel, Swick identifies seven sources of enjoyment guaranteed to the traveler: anticipation, movement, a break from routine, novelty, discovery, emotional connection, and a heightened appreciation of home. I would add an eighth: humility. Traveling in the United States, whether as a teenager or as an adult, is almost always a chastening experience. One can count on disturbing encounters with bigots, drunks, and morons; with the desperately poor, drug-addicted, homeless, or mentally ill; even with the weather (try driving through high winds and dust devils across the Bonneville Salt Flats). It isn’t all kachina dolls, boiled peanuts, and fireworks stands.
Still, those seven “joys” provide a useful scheme for thinking about road trips, how to approach them, and what to expect of them. And if one has been stuck at home this season by work, a dwindling account balance, or lack of a suitable Airstream trailer or Econoline van, Swick’s volume is a perfect vade mecum for the next best thing to a road trip: revisiting some of the greatest American road trip travelogues. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, and Larry McMurtry’s Roads deliver about as much America as one can hope to experience without actually leaving home. This list is limited to 20th-century nonfiction accounts by Americans. Should you exhaust it but still crave dispatches from the open road, there are older works—William Bartram’s Travels, Mark Twain’s Roughing It—travelogues by foreigners, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jonathan Raban, and, of course, venerable novels by Americans. Many will already have read Kerouac’s On the Road, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; those who haven't are advised to skip them in favor of Charles Portis’s Norwood and Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. (As Swick reminds his readers, Nabokov’s Lolita is also a road novel.)
Anticipation—which, Swick writes, “inspires us to act and then grows as we do”—is present in the opening pages of every great travelogue. John Steinbeck: “The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.” These promise adventure, experience. They also spur one to read travelogues: “As soon as I dream up a trip,” Swick writes, “I plan my reading accordingly.”
Then there is the sheer pleasure of departure and of movement. “Other than curiosity,” writes McMurtry in Roads, “there’s no particular reason for these travels—just the old desire to be on the move.” Bryson, setting out in The Lost Continent, states that
My intention was to retrace the route my father always took to my grandparents’ house in Winfield—through Prairie City, Pella, Oskaloosa, Hedrick, Brighton, Coppock, Wayland and Olds. . . . Always having been a passenger before, I had never paid much attention to the road, so I was surprised to find that I kept coming up against odd turns and abrupt T-junctions, requiring me to go left here for a couple of miles, then right for a few miles, then left again and so on.
Changing one’s sky can change a lot. A road trip should, if possible, follow every personal failure. I vacated California and a bad breakup to the strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight,” Connecticut and a bad breakup with a whining cat, my own personal Charley, in the backseat. Watching the mile markers fly by has a quality, paradoxically, both anesthetic and entirely invigorating.
To travel in the United States is to make everything new, and nobody who has done it in a serious way has much patience for stock objections to that idea. In his chapter on “Novelty,” Swick identifies the “biggest lie in travel” as “Every place now looks the same.” He who “complains about McDonald’s everywhere is someone with an unhealthy fixation on chains,” a fixation Swick calls the “geographical equivalent . . . of saying the members of a race all look alike.” Larry McMurtry is moved to
advance one modest thesis, a counter argument to the often expressed view that because of the chain businesses, America all looks the same. But it doesn’t, and it won’t, no matter how many McDonald’s and Taco Bells cluster around the exits. . . . In America the light itself will always differ; the winter light on the Sault Ste. Marie, at the head of the 75, will never be like the light over the Everglades, at the bottom of that road. . . . [A] thousand McDonald’s will not make Boston feel like Tucson.
America’s variety means that one cannot go very far in any direction without making discoveries. For Jane and Michael Stern, the (former) husband-and-wife team responsible for Roadfood, that meant diners, drive-ins, and dives. Ditto William Least Heat-Moon: "There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.” These were left by traveling salesmen, and the more of them, the better. Five calendars meant “keep it under your hat, or they’ll franchise”—spots like, for my money, Seewee Restaurant in Awendaw, South Carolina, O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria in Utica, New York, or Curtis’s BBQ (Ninth Wonder of the World—what’s the eighth?) in Putney, Vermont. But this is not to discount all of the big, obvious “discoveries” like Carlsbad Caverns and Crater Lake, Monticello and Graceland Too.
While I ate buttermilk pie, Watts served as disc jockey of Nameless, Tennessee. “Here’s ‘Mountain Rose.’” It was one of those moments that you know at the time will stay with you to the grave: the sweet pie, the gaunt man playing the old music, the coals in the stove glowing orange, the scent of kerosene and hot bread. “Here’s ‘Evening Rhapsody.’” The music was so heavily romantic we both laughed. I thought: It is for this I have come.
Swick’s seventh joy of travel is a heightened appreciation of home. By home, he means wherever you came from; but by home I mean America, a place one can be from without knowing the first thing about it, without having gone, like John Steinbeck, in search of it. A proper American road trip should eliminate both the overweening mandarins and the flyover dummies from one’s moral imagination. It should replace them with people, full stop. Returning to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson writes, “I could see why strangers came in off the interstate looking for hamburgers and gasoline and stayed forever. There was just something about it that looked friendly and decent and nice. I could live here, I thought.”
Nobody scrutinizing our presidential campaign could believe that Americans are universally friendly and decent and nice. We are those things some of the time; we are everything else as well. What we have never yet learned how to be is predictable, and God bless us for it.