Friday, August 01, 2008

Cross Country

If the price of gas is keeping you close to home this summer you can still read about the classic summer road trip. It's a lot cheaper and there are fewer bathroom breaks!

One road trip title I enjoyed recently is slightly unusual in its revisionist take on traveling the U.S.: Robert Sullivan's Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America. The template for contemporary travel accounts involves getting off the beaten path, taking the side roads, the secondary roads. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon is the classic version of this (blue highways being secondary highways marked in blue on standard maps). But Sullivan has a fondness for the main roads, the Interstates, with all the associated baggage - the anonymous Holiday Inn Expresses, the interchangeable fast food chains, the miles and miles of road avoiding anything of note!

In Cross Country Sullivan uses the template of one family trip, east from Portland, Oregon to New York City, to talk about other family trips but also to riff on all sorts of arcane road-related and not quite related nuggets of info: the history of the Interstate system, the story of the Holiday Inn chain, the design of coffee cups, the Cannonball Run etc etc. I know it sounds like the nightmare of family travel: trapped in a car on an endless road while Dad drones on about this and that... But it is a testament to Sullivan's talent as a writer that the book is interesting. Of course, we don't really know what his two kids are thinking as the road goes on and on.

The one part of the trip where Sullivan leaves the Interstates is following the Lewis and Clark trail through taking the classic Highway 12 from Walla Walla, Washington to Missoula, Montana. This area is familiar to many Albertans, although most folks making their way down to Seattle stick to the Interstates via Spokane. The bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's travels was celebrated in 2003-2006, renewing interest in the pair. Books like Julie Fanselow's handy Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail (4th edition) or Kira Gale's exhaustive Lewis and Clark Road Trips: Exploring the Trail Across America can help you plot your route. Or stick to the armchair and read one of the dozens of Lewis and Clark books, from historian Stephen E. Ambrose's non-fiction account, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West to one of the historical novels based on the famous lads, like The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis by Michael Pritchett.