Destination: The American Road
Books: Roads, by Larry Mc Murtry
Travels With Charley In Search of America, by John Steinbeck.
“Where does the road go?” asked a young Larry McMurtry of the road running past his North Texas ranch.
“What are Americans like today?” John Steinbeck asked when he set out from the East Coast in 1960 to re-acquaint himself with the country he wrote about.
The questions shape the trips and the books of these two authors. McMurtry traveled most of the main freeways across the country north to south and east to west, but he did it in short spurts. He traveled forty years later than Steinbeck’s circle around the map. By the end of the 20th century, the great highway system was not only complete, but beginning to age in places. In Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways , McMurtry stuck to the “great roadways” with “a desire to be on the move rather than take the pulse of the nation.”
“It is now possible,” he writes,” to drive coast to coast without speaking to a human being at all; you just slide your card, pump your gas, buy a couple of Hershey bars, perhaps heat up a burro and put the pedal back to the metal.” The people along the way are superfluous to McMurtry. “For the road, like the river, very often merely passes through long stretches of countryside, having little effect on the likes of people who live only a few miles from it.”
I was curious about how he would keep me interested on the bland freeways without human contact, and the answer came halfway through the book. He did not. His train of thought rambles over authors associated with various places, which I was interested in and I will return to those another day. But overall, the book Roads does not add much to the traveler’s library.
Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America ,offers treats on every page. Clearly the desire to take the pulse of the nation makes more interesting subject matter than random musings of the traveler. Besides, I find Steinbeck’s prose endlessly entertaining.
In contrast to McMurtry, he avoids the freeways, and his take on them, while similar to McMurtry, comes in a very different tone. “These roads are wonderful for moving goods, but not for inspection of a countryside. He concludes that, “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing.”
Exactly right. As so many of his sentences are.
Charley the poodle provides drama, dialogue, incidents and scenes that keep things lively. Although Steinbeck never quite satisfactorily answers his basic question, he concludes, “I do know this–the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.” If you read the 1962 edition, you will not see that closing line. The Penguin Centennial version restored Steinbeck’s originally proposed ending, which talks about his attendance at the Inaugural of John F. Kennedy.
This book has earned a place on the list of indispensable books for the traveler’s library. Tomorrow I will share titles other people have recommended for the road, but I will maintain that Travels with Charley is at the top of American road trip book lists.
The photo of Rocinante, Steinbeck’s camper is courtesy of a photographer on Flickr. Click the photo to get more information.