2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: The Great American Road Trip — U.S. 1 from Maine to Florida

The end of Route 1 in Key West, Florida.

So with all of the virtual road trips I’ve taken by reading these books, one of the things I have found the most fun has been seeing how these writers get to meet people in addition to visiting places over the course of their journies. Each of them takes the time to describe those they talk to and capture their personalities, even if they do not necessarily agree with their political views. They are attempts to capture America at that specific time, to give the reader a full portrait of the country and to show a common thread (in a manner of speaking). Peter Genovese’s The Great American Road Trip: U.S. 1 from Maine to Florida is no exception.

Genovese, a journalist based in New Jersey, spent a significant amount of time (two years, I believe) traveling Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida and chronicled his journey in the way a journalist would–observing the nature of the highway, visiting attractions and other places along the highway, and also spending a decent amount of time with people. The result is the only “coffee table”-sized book I’ve read for this project, as he divides his travel up state by state (including the District of Columbia) and includes both black and white and color photographs of the people and places he encounters. It’s a pretty thorough trip down a highway that he admits doesn’t get a lot of recognition for being important because it’s not as noteworthy as Route 66 or Route 40 (aka “The Lincoln Highway”), even though during the course of the trip he passes through most of the major cities along the east coast. Stops include a roadside motel in Maine; The Bronx Zoo; a wax museum dedicated to African-Americans in Baltimore; the headquarters of the National Enquirer; and plenty of bars, junkyards, hubcap dealers as well.

I remember first coming across this book in the early 2000s, when I read Sarah Bunting’s two-part chronicle of her own trip down Route 1 in 1998, a trip she considered turning into a book but wound up posting on her site, Tomato Nation (“U.S. Highway One: Straight No Chaser” Part 1, Part 2). I bought my copy of Genovese’s book a few months later, and at the time, the book had been out for a couple of years, so it wasn’t easy to find, but my copy says that it had been marked down to $16.95 from whatever the cover price was, so I bought it used, but where I can’t remember (probably eBay). It currently sits among other “important books” that involve travel or places on a shelf in my living room, and even if I wasn’t rereading it, I certainly would have enjoyed flipping through it.

Then again, I always enjoy the idea that a person could take one highway and really experience it to its fullest like this. I’ve also always been the type of person who wonders where the road I’m on keeps going — and no, I’m not speaking metaphorically here, I literally want to see the beginning and the end of a particular road. Since I lived on Route 1 for a few years in my twenties (in Arlington, Virginia), I feel some sort of connection to the highway … which is what piqued my interest in a book about it. And thankfully, there is a sort of “drama” to the beginning and end of Route 1, as it starts in specific places where you can, if you’d like, stop and savor the moment, unlike many interstate highways, which begin and end when they merge with other highways or parkways (this, by the way has always been my beef with the Northern State Parkway on Long Island. Every other parkway ends at a state park, but the Northern State just … ends randomly. If I were still living on Long Island, I would drive out there, find it and take a picture, but alas I am not. One day …).

Genovese does his best to convey this feeling, especially since the beginning of the road is rigth near the Canadian border and the end of the road here is pretty much at the literal end of the east coast, in Key West. There’s no majesty to the trip, per se (after all, quite a large amount of Route 1, at least from my experience driving it in Northern Virginia, involves strip malls and fast food joints … but I do give him props for visiting the Krispy Kreme in Alexandria, which is always a stop of mine whenever I’m up there), but I think that’s what I like about it. It’s kind of hard for an experience on a road like that to feel artificial and you do get the feeling that there is some of the “real America” that John Steinbeck and so many others were looking for when they set out on their various trips (as well as the “real America” that so many moron politicians attempt to pander to, especially in an election year). As I mentioned, it’s not the easiest thing to get a hold of the book. A new copy on Amazon will cost you nearly $40, but it is on Kindle for $14.99. But if you ever find this while wandering through a used book store, pick it up.

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