Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Destination: From Atlantic to Pacific

Traffic terrific or terrible, many of us will be hitting the highways this holiday season, driving home. In doing so we will be joining not just a holiday tradition, but a literary one. Browsing the U.S. shelf of Destination Literature the other day, I noticed that a good part of our national literature takes place, well, On the Road.
The beats weren't the only writers roaming the country. John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, although recently under criticism for being only partially based on actual events, still stands as a classic exploration of the question "What are American's like today?" Steinbeck's "today" is the year 1960, and the answers he finds as he explores America with his faithful French standard poodle Charley, are not always what you expect.
In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon traveled what he calls the Blue Highways, the lesser-known back roads that crisscross the states, outlined in blue in the old Rand Mcnally guides. Disillusioned with a failed marriage and teaching career, he finds solace in his explorations of the landscapes and small-town culture of the U.S.

Several decades later, Bill Bryson accomplished a similar journey in his The Lost Continent. Avoiding the typical tourist attractions of U.S. travel, Bryson sets out to explore everyday life in lesser known destinations.

Traveling South? Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald made the trip from Connecticut to Alabama in eight days, riding in what Fitzgerald calls the Rolling Junk. The car breaks down several times along the way, but the young couple keep their spirits high. Zelda woke up one morning, homesick for biscuits and peaches. They packed their bags and hit the road. The Cruise of the Rolling Junk was first published serially in Motor magazine but was just published as a book with a foreword by Paul Theroux. Theroux himself has carried the American penchant for documenting road trips into the twenty-first century, proving that cross-country travel continues to be the seed of great American storytelling.

Even those across the pond are joining the tradition. In his recently released Driving Home, Jonathan Raban discovers that, like many of us, his favorite road is the one that takes him home. And mothers driving with a back seat full this season, might find solidarity in Wendy Swart Grossman's Behind the Wheel, a journal of a mother who moved her family from a spacious house in London into a Winnebago, that took them across North America.

If you're planning to spend more time in transit than around the holiday table this season, you aren't alone. All of these books make great traveling companions, perused at rest stops or read out loud from the passenger seat.

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