America and the Open Road – Travel Memoirs

An architecture student, Hank, created something worthwhile with his Masters’ Final Project – a fully-tricked-out bus. Then, he took to the open road and decided to share the journey with the world on an online travel log called Hank Bought A Bus. The bus itself is a work of art. Do check it out.

It occurred to me, as I read through some of his posts, how his focus is more on the personal things happening to him rather than observations of people and places he encounters along the journey. While that’s just fine, I wonder if he’s perhaps missing out on that long-time tradition of writers of American travels, who gave us their unique versions of the elusive, ever-changing essence of America and her people through compelling narratives. Do people even do that anymore? Is the great American travel memoir done for?

When we think of great American travel memoirs, Jack Kerouac’s Road Novels are generally high on the list. So, below are some other travelogues that continue to stand well in our times (by no means an exhaustive list – just what I happen to have on my shelves).

Let me add one quick note before you dive into the list. There’s a reason why travel memoirs are loved over others – I know many people who wouldn’t touch memoirs in general, but enjoy this sub-genre. For me, a travel memoir is like going on a journey with a friend. Or, at least, by the end of the journey, discovering that you’ve made a very good friend. And, isn’t that one of the pleasures of real-life journeys as well – finding / making unexpected new friends?

1) The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Merriweather Lewis and William Clark – These two inspired entire generations of explorers across America. They were, of course, the original and intrepid travelers who set out, on presidential order, to discover, map and document the unknown lands that were part of the Louisiana Purchase. Not easy reading, by any means, given the early-19th century English. But, totally worth it.

2) and 3) Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It by Mark Twain – Travels, 19th century style. Twain, the humorist, at his best while also shrewd and canny with details about people’s wicked ways. The Mississippi book has 2 parts – first, tales from when he was a steamboat pilot, pre-Civil War and, second, a retracing after, when rail had overtaken steamboats. Roughing It is about stagecoach travels, prospecting and other such old-timey things in the Wild West. Whether you like his other writing or not, these books are charming and quaint, and so much more. Above all, sheer escapism.

4) Ernie’s America: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s 1930′s Travel Dispatches by Ernie Pyle – A journalist by trade, Pyle wrote newspaper travel columns – 6 days a week, 1000-or-so words each, for 7 long years – going across the length and breadth of the country. Depression era sentiments mark his vivid and intimate descriptions of both rural and urban America. His more well-known works were the Pulitzer-winning wartime columns, where he worked alongside troops and recorded the smaller moments in real-time. In all his writing, he never chased the big headlines, preferring to focus on the everyman (and everywoman, for that matter). It is sad that his books are out of print.

5) America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir – Just before WWII ended, de Beauvoir traveled to America and took New York society and intelligentsia by storm. She was also having an affair with another writer, Nelson Algren, at the time. While there are lovely descriptive bits about American landscape, people and culture in this daily personal journal, it is, as one might expect, an existentialist view of America and the nature of travel. There are also many details about her own life – varied experiences that ran the entire gamut of emotions – both because of missing her home country and discovering new and exciting facets of her host country. Notably, too, there’s a refreshing lack of the macho-ness of the other travel books on this list.  Having tried to read The Second Sex and failed, this book was definitely a lot more accessible.

6) Coast to Coast by Jan Morris – Written in the 1950s, when Jan was still James, this post-WWII Mad Men era was an interesting one in the US. A time of prosperity, for sure, but, also, evolving socio-political times before the 1960s turned everything on its head. It’s another one of those time capsule reading experiences. But, the prose, ah, the prose – rich and beautiful.

7) Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck – An extraordinary writer trying to find ordinary America. Steinbeck was an older man in the 1960s and had written all his best work before he undertook this journey with his dog and a beat-up truck. But, his powers of observation remained sharp as ever and the decade was one of the most interesting for the country – these two things alone make this a worthwhile read. Steinbeck had previously written many fine journalistic pieces and essays on America (see America and Americans). But, for me, the personal nature of these travels rank it higher.

8) Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon – Set during the early-1980s, this trucking travelogue takes us into the back roads and focuses on people portraits – literary and photographed. The author, having lost both job and wife, decided to take to the country roads to discover himself. Of course, he discovered America along the way. He wrote other travel books, but this one stands out.

9) and 10) Charles Kuralt’s America, On the Road with Charles Kuralt by Charles Kuralt – Kuralt was a long-time journalist-reporter’s at CBS and had various popular shows. These late-20th century books focused more on people across America through interviews and profiles. Charming, humorous and well-narrated. I normally have a sort of aversion to books with author names in them (seems a bit egotistical, doesn’t it?) but not so with these.

11) Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways by Larry McMurtry – I was a bit disappointed with this book after having loved McMurtry’s fiction. Set at the end of the 20th century, it covers a lot about the actual highways than most other books on this list. There’s also definitely a bit of the “cranky old man” thing going on here. But, a Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau kind of lovable cranky old man, I think.

12) Ciao America by Beppe Severgnini – A book that is now about 10 years old, it still speaks to our times. Severgnini is an Italian reporter who moved to the US for a year and wrote the book with a foreigner’s perspective on urban American lives. I enjoyed this one and recognized many of the sentiments from when I first came to the US. I don’t know if Americans will find the book interesting enough, though.

You might note that this list is missing Alexis de Tocqueville’s socio-political account, Bill Bryson’s many travel books and various other books that include walking across America (e.g. by John Muir, Peter Jenkins et al). These stand somewhat apart from the list above for various reasons, but we’ll get to them in the future, surely.

Notice something else? Practically all male writers. It’s not that women haven’t traveled across America and written similar memoirs. Their works are much lesser-known in this genre or fall into what I call the Eat, Pray, Love genre, which isn’t as appealing. Also, for women, travel is fraught with, generally, more risks, as frequent media stories remind us. So, this might explain why there aren’t as many great travel memoirs by women. But, they’re out there and deserve an entire post of their own sometime.

Let me end with a personal note: When I first came to the US, circa 1998-1999, I also did a couple of long and solitary coast-to-coast trips by car. In those days, not being blog-savvy, I mailed dozens of post-cards from every stop to friends and family and wrote copious journal entries every night in cheap motel rooms. Those were also the days before GPS or decent cellular/wireless services, so I had my trusty and heavily-marked AAA Triptiks – customized physical itineraries with maps, guides then (all online/mobile now). The beauty of this sort of travel is that you get lost often, find yourself on unplanned adventures (even brushing past a couple of near-death experiences), come upon unexpected sights off the beaten path and are helped by wonderful, kind strangers. And, while I’ve had brief, solitary forays into European countries (tagged on at the beginning or end of business trips), these long American road trips were a different sort of pleasure. Looking back, I think, partly, this was because, having just come to the US, I had been expecting a homogenous or stereotypical culture based on mainstream Hollywood movies and certain books. I was surprised to find persistent remnants of micro-cultures in different regions/cities/towns – as described in the earlier books listed above. [Yes, I should dig out my old journals and clean up some of the entries to share sometime.]

I wonder what some of those authors listed above would make of American travel today. Would they be just as inspired to write travel memoirs? Would they care for their much-loved large open spaces to be punctuated with more frequent oases of civilization? And, whether the comforts of technology, while reducing isolation, would require them to rely on personal ingenuity much at all? It is a different kind of wanderlust that gets satisfied today compared to that of the earlier, more intrepid, travelers who, for the most part, got by on guts, wit and an all-consuming passion to discover and tell stories.