Books for the road, from the road

Remember road trips? Sometimes the purpose was the Road Trip itself; sometimes it had an actual destination. If you’re a child of North America, chances are you’ve driven somewhere that takes hours or days to reach, and in that time, you know that nothing much happens.

Yet, there’s a strong and vibrant tradition of literature of the open road (On the Road, is that you again?), just moving down the highways, alone or with travelling companions, experiencing what’s out there. And perhaps if you’ve ever had a friend on a trip who posts (and photographs) everything they’re doing on social media from meals to monuments the moment it happens, making you wish they’d vacation in some dark, signal-less corner of Nowifiland, you can appreciate some writers who took the trip and then told the tale.

Travels with Charley by John SteinbeckTravels with Charley

One of my all-time favourite writers is John Steinbeck, but I didn’t read Travels with Charley until fairly recently. I was put off for a petty reason: Charley is a French poodle, and I don’t particularly like poodles. I am nuts about dogs, but not poodles. Anyway, this is a non-fiction book Steinbeck wrote about driving through the United States, seeing the country he has written about all of these years in his novels and meeting people who don’t recognize him for his fame and awards but for being another traveller like themselves. One of my favourite scenes is him waiting in a motel room that has not been cleaned for his stay yet, and he is picking up clues about the last traveller – a businessman he nicknames “Lonesome Harry” – from the “bits and pieces of himself he had left behind.” (Lonesome Harry’s scotch glass and cigarettes could very well have belonged to the real-life Don Draper.) It’s all very earthy and reflective, as well as letting modern readers glimpse an America before every little town had that strip of fast-food joints and malls.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a classic philosophy book, though it does have the narrative throughline of a road trip. Amid all that heaviness, I appreciate the descriptions of little towns, of old men passing the time on porches and of roadside diners, and of the sadness he feels for the closed-up worlds of city drivers. And of course, appreciating the craft of keeping a vehicle moving forward, down to the turn of a screw. If you’re looking for a book to read out in public and impress people with your depth, you could do worse and you might actually learn something along the way.

The Lost Continent by Bill BrysonThe Lost Continent

Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent is sort of the heir apparent to Steinbeck’s Travels. He also takes us on a trip around the United States, visiting most of the Lower 48 on trips radiating out from his hometown in Iowa. Bryson is a master of wry observation and funny asides, not only telling you what happened on his trip but also stories of the places he goes. In this book, he’s on a bit of a quest to find what he calls “Amalgam, USA” – that is, the classic American town seen in movies and TV, the one with a courthouse and green lawn and a soda shop and movie theatre (basically, Hill Valley from Back to the Future). He finds a few close contenders, but of course, almost always hidden by the tacky, shiny neon strips of chains on the edge of town and marred by boarded-up shopfronts in the old downtowns. This was written in the late 80s, and not much seems to have changed on those fronts. Though he’s now turned to writing entertaining science and social histories, Bryson is a great, funny travel writer whose observations are as bewildered as they are withering.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Will FergusonBeauty Tips from Moose Jaw

And I can’t leave out my home and native land, Canada, where we get Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw from Will Ferguson. Ferguson and Bryson might be border-brothers in that they both wrote funny travel books mixed with social history, and now write slightly more serious books. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw also combines several trips to various regions of Canada, including the West Coast, Maritimes, Prairies, Quebec and yes, the Centre of the Universe (Toronto). It’s saturated with observations about Canada that even a Canadian might not know, all told in typically Canadian self-deprecating fashion. As I’ve driven across Canada and can appreciate the vast distance this country covers, sometimes without much of interest to see (and that includes some towns), it’s amazing that Ferguson mines so many gems for us to enjoy. I laughed out loud a lot during this book.

You may notice that these books are more than a few years old. Travel book publishing isn’t what it used to be – guidebooks have been supplanted by TripAdvisor and Yelp, and travel narratives demand more extreme tales than simply getting in a car and reporting back on the trip. But with gas prices being pushed up with every return of what is now called “driving season,” you can still get the old road trip feeling by pedalling your bike down to the library and taking out a book.

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