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Get on the road with a good book

Americans have always loved the wide- open road, and often the journey itself is more important than the destination.

Published July 23, 2006

It's July. It's hot. I'm thinking road trip.

Apparently, that is a very American thought. Whether we go by bus, car, motorcycle or our own two feet, Americans are obsessed by the lure of the open road, and we have a honking body of road literature to prove it.

Of course, many of us - too many - in our history have been forced into trips not of our own making. Slaves were brought over in chains on the Middle Passage. American Indians were exiled from their homes and set upon a Trail of Tears. The Okies were pushed westward by dust and depression.

But for Americans who have had the luxury to choose to explore and open up new territories, movement is just another word for freedom.

Jack Kerouac became famous when he went on the road. John Steinbeck wrote most famously about those Okies on the move, but his last book chronicled his own trip across the country with his dog, Charley. "Three passions have dominated my more than 60 years of mostly happy life," Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, wrote in Roads (2001 Simon & Schuster), an account of his crisscrossing of America by car with his son, "books, women, and the road."

Roaming the highways and the byways, Americans search for America, as the Paul Simon song goes, but mostly we search for ourselves.

Mike Leonard took a sabbatical from NBC's Today show in a pair of rented RVs with his two eccentric 80-something parents, three grown kids and a daughter-in-law. You can read about his hilarious adventures in The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons of an American Family (Ballantine, $24.95, 240pp ). Or, better yet, listen to it on an audio CD (Random House, 5 hours, 4 CDs, $27.95) while making your own trek across multiple states.

For three decades, husband-and-wife team Jane and Michael Stern have been hitting the road - 3-million miles worth - in search of the best of American roadside food. Beginning their culinary road trips just after grad school driving (and sleeping in) a Chevrolet Suburban, they have been finding America in baby back ribs, pulled pork and custard pie, discovering that their marriage can survive almost anything. Now the authors of Gourmet's Roadside column have written their memoirs in Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 309 pp).

These two current road books join a venerable tradition of American road books in which the story is not really in the destination, but in the journey itself. Here are some of my past favorites:

BOLD SPIRIT: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America (2005 Anchor Books paperback)

Talk about a bold spirit: Looking to earn the $10,000 offered by a sponsor to any woman who would walk across America in 1896, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight took up the challenge in order to save her family farm. Starting in eastern Washington, Helga Estby and her daughter, armed with a compass, red-pepper spray, a revolver and a curling iron, passed through 14 states before arriving in New York 13 months later, to face not fame and fortune but an America not yet ready to accept the equal rights of women.

RIDING IN THE SHADOWS OF SAINTS: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, by Jane Richman (2005 Crown)

Pacing up her BMW R 1100 R motorcycle, Richman rode from Illinois to Utah retracing the trail of thousands of Mormons, including seven of her great-great grandmothers. The journey helps her confront her own prejudices against the religion of her ancestors and test her own definition of faith.

BREAKING THE LIMIT: One Woman's Motorcyle Journey Through North America, by Karen Larsen (2004 Hyperion)

With the skimpiest of provisions and a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 motorcycle, Larsen heads off from New Jersey for a 15,000-mile solo journey across the continental United States, over the Canadian Rockies and down the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. "Rather than looking to find myself," she concludes at journey's end, "I learned how to lose myself in the road, to take each moment for what it was, and to open my eyes and heart to what surrounded me."

STRANGER ON A TRAIN: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America With Interruptions, by Jenny Diski (2002 Picador)

Here's a Brit's view of America as seen through the windows of a smoking car, but also through her serendipitous meetings with fellow smokers in that communal train compartment. Based on two cross-country trips via Amtrak, the book captures perfectly the interplay between the movement and immobility of train travel. "(W)hat a proper travel writer hopes for, I dread: incident. My ideal method of writing a travel book," confesses Diski, "would be to stay at home with the phone off the hook, the doorbell disconnected, and the blinds drawn."

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: A Black Briton's Journey Through the American South, by Gary Younge (2002 University Press of Mississippi)

Retracing the route of the original Freedom Riders of the '60s by Greyhound bus, Gary Younge, a black man born in Britain of emigrants from Barbados, made a remarkable discovery: The former Confederate states were his cultural home. "Having spent six months roaming around the South," he observes, "I had been confirmed, assured and supported: Black Southerners might have been confused by my British accent, but they were keen to embrace my blackness. They talked about it and engaged with it. They gave me access to another dimension."

AMERICAN PIE: Slices of Life (and Pie) From America's Back Roads, by Pascale Le Draoulec (2002 HarperCollins)

Issued in paperback (with added recipes) in 2003, this is an account of one woman's quest for the perfect pie. Le Draoulec, the restaurant critic for the New York Daily News, traveled in an old Volvo named Betty (do people still name their cars?) and found an America as American as, well ... you know the rest.

GRANNY D: Walking Across America in My 90th Year, by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke, foreword by Bill Moyers (2001 Villard)

Doris "Granny D" Haddock, a 90-year-old retired shoe-factory worker and great-grandmother of 12, walked from Los Angeles to the steps of the Capitol in Washington to make a point. She wanted to draw attention to the need for campaign finance reform. We haven't gotten the reform yet, but we do have this remarkable book based on the diary she kept during her cross-country trek. "The soul of a citizen shines through these pages," Bill Moyers writes in the book's foreword. "You need to have a purpose to your life," Granny D advises us, "and you need friends."

ROADTRIPPING: The Complete Coast-to-Coast Guide to America (2005 St. Martin's Press)

Aimed at budget-conscious road junkies, this thick paperback guide is chockablock with ideas for your own road trip. Choose from eight classic cross-country trips, including Route 66, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Pacific Coast Highway, lonely Highway 40, the Al-Can highway to Anchorage and the Pan American Highway to Mexico.

[Last modified July 22, 2006, 11:40:43]

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