2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Cross-Country

cross-country cover

When I decided that I was going to do a “reading project” where I read books related to travel, it was because I had just started reading Blue Highways and that had whetted my appetite for more travelogues. I’m pretty sure that I made a list somewhere–I have a tendency to make lists–but if I made one, I promptly lost it. I do know for a fact that on the “list” of books I wanted to make sure I read for this reading project were Kerouac’s On the Road (which I’ll be picking up at the library today), Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley In Search of America (which I read years ago), and Robert Sullivan’s Cross-Country. The subtitle to this story of the author–Sullivan–taking his family across the country is “Fifteen years and 90000 miles on the roads and interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a lot of bad motels, a moving fan, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, my wife, my mother-in-law, two kids, and enough coffee to kill an elephant,” and what I loved about it both times I read it was how it’s almost a foil to that very first book I read by William Least Heat-Moon.

Blue Highways was about a guy who had lost just about everything–his job, his marriage–and as a result he set out on a journey of self-discovery. Cross-Country is about a writer taking a cross-country journey with his family and reflecting throughout how many times he’s done this. Not only that, Sullivan is not eschewing the interstates and thruways for “blue highways,” but is rather embracing them. He and his family mainly travel I-90 and I-94 throughout the northern part of the country, making their way from Portland, Oregon to New York City over the course of about a week. Along the way, he does what he can to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark and gives quite a good historical overview of that legendary expedition, including a description of what happened on a bicentennial version of the expedition wherein one of the reenactors actually rebelled and decided to set out on his own, but more importantly really works to show his audience what a trip like this is like.

There are what seem like endless searches for better accommodations (specifically, Holiday Inn Express), the best and worst of hotel breakfasts, a surprisingly detailed history of plastic coffee cup covers, and a thorough examination of the history of the very interstate system upon which he is traveling. I think it was that last aspect of the book that drew me to it when I first read a review in the New York Times upon release of the hardcover (I personally own the paperback because … well, I’m cheap) because as much as I can appreciate a tour of the backroads of our vast country, I am from a generation that grew up on all the things that writers seem to disdain, a child of the suburbs whose nostalgia involves malls and multiplexes and whose memories of lengthy road trips involves the ubiquitous interstate sign.

When my parents and I did vacation and drive to said vacation spot, that usually meant that we were traveling via interstate; when I want to go back to Long Island to see my parents, I have to take what, in a post I wrote on Pop Culture Affidavit, I referred to as not the “mother road” but a “motherfucker of a road”: Interstate 95. So to read about types of roads that I have traveled (Sullivan doesn’t really travel I-95, although he does give a mention to the New Jersey Turnpike at one point) and to see someone write about them and their history with the same amount of reverence that other writers have used for other roads.

Plus, Sullivan also presents traveling a long distance with family in tow in a way that’s pretty on point. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving eight or nine hours on an interstate, you know what I mean when I use words like “haul” or “schlep.” Yes, Sullivan has long passages of reflection and takes plenty of time to consider any history that may apply or insights that might be gained, but he also fully acknowledges that road trips can take their toll on any of the travelers. There’s complaining, there’s missed exits, there’s bad weather, there’s car trouble, and there’s desperately trying to stay awake. In fact, at times he seems like a more competent and capable Clark Griswold and he definitely makes even the haul enjoyable, especially when so many travelogues these days can be so pretentious.

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