by Svetlana Grobman, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
We are a nation of travelers. It’s been our history all along. The first nomads, it’s believed, came to the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering Strait. Later, the Europeans arrived by sea. Later yet, came immigrants from all over the world — by sea, by plane and by every other means possible. So, it’s no wonder that we, the offspring of those travelers, carry a “call of the road” in our DNA the way birds carry a call for migration in theirs. And never does this call sound louder than in spring and summer. The weather is warm, kids are out of school and one day we look out our windows and feel that burning desire to get “on the road again.” Or, at the very least, to reach for a book and enjoy someone else’s travel experiences.
The quintessential American contemporary “road bard” is Jack Kerouac. His book “On the Road” (Viking Press, 1957) chronicles the author’s years of traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady. The two roamed the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Despite being published in 1957, this book is still the archetypal American vision of freedom and hope.
Another author of “on the road” classics is our fellow Missourian William Least Heat-Moon. “Blue Highways” (Little, Brown, 1982) depicts his journey along rural roads, colored blue on old highway maps. The places he discovers during his 13,000-mile journey are unexpected, sometimes mysterious, and often full of the simple wonders of the ordinary.
In “River Horse” (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), Heat-Moon set out to discover America through her rivers. He records storms, floods, wildlife and scenic beauty, alongside mishaps, hilarity and philosophical musings. It’s also a living history of the U.S., as the author describes numerous historical events that took place along his route.
“Roads to Quoz” (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) narrates Heat-Moon’s travel along the Ouachita River, which begins in Mena, Arkansas and ends in Louisiana, in search of “quoz,” an 18th-century word meaning anything out of the ordinary. On his journey, as meandering as the roads themselves, the author sees plenty of unusual sights and meets interesting people.
Bill Bryson doesn’t need an introduction for travel writing aficionados. In “A Walk in the Woods” (Broadway Books, 1998) he hiked along the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-plus-mile trail which winds through 14 states, stretching along the east coast of the United States, from Georgia to Maine. With an eye for the absurd, and a laugh-out-loud sense of humor, Bryson recounts the confrontations he and his unconventional companion Katz have with nature at its most uncompromising, and, in his more serious moments, Bryson argues for the protection of this fragile strip of wilderness.
Bryson’s other adventures take him to Kenya (“Bill Bryson's African Diary,” Broadway Books, 2002), Australia (“In a Sunburned Country,” Broadway Books, 2000), England (“Notes from a Small Island,” Morrow, 1996) among other places.
Train travel is not as common as it used to be, but, those who yearn for the days of coaches, sleepers, and dining cars still can take a few sightseeing trains left on the North American continent. Most of these are west of the Mississippi, where the Rocky Mountains, stretching through Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, provide a backdrop of peaks, river valleys, bridges and tunnels that makes travel by train so very thrilling. John Grant relishes the sense of adventure, romance and excitement we associate with trains in “Great American Rail Journeys"” (Globe Pequot Press, 2000), and Paul Theroux retraces his steps in “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
The reasons that people take to the road are many. For some, it’s a long awaited vacation, as in Matthew Algeo’s “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure” (Chicago Review Press, May, 2009) which follows Harry and Bess Truman who, six months after leaving the White House, loaded up their new Chrsysler and headed out like thousands of their fellow citizens. For others, it’s a way of thinking about serious questions in life, as Robert Pirsig does during his 17-day motorcycle journey across the country in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (Bantam, 1981). Part road novel, part contemplations on important issues of the 20th century, the book is a perfect unification of philosophy, adventure and mystery. Don’t care for philosophy? Check out “Over the Hills: a Midlife Escape Across America Bicycle” (Times Books, 1996) by David Lamb, an account of dealing with middle age, or “Stranger on a Train” (Picador USA, 2002) by British writer Jenny Diski, an exploration of America, as well as the author’s own past.
“Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything,” Charles Kuralt wrote in “On the Road With Charles Kuralt” (Putnam, 1985). If you share Kuralt’s sentiment and nostalgia for old-fashioned America, take a trip along Route 66. The library offers a variety of titles describing the “Mother Road,” its roadside attractions, cultural history, places to eat, hangouts and more. Also, while we’re traveling through Missouri, don’t miss the wineries at St. James. In fact, don’t miss wineries anywhere in the state; pick up Brett Dufur’s “Exploring Missouri Wine Country” (Pebble Publishing, 1997) and pretend that you’re in California or France.
Wait—why dream of elsewhere? With a plethora of state parks to explore, fast rivers to float on, and numerous trails to hike, Missouri has a lot to offer us. Besides, travel here is easier on our wallets, too. Take a look at “50 Hikes in the Ozarks” (Countryman, 2008) by Johnny Molloy, “Hiking Missouri” (Human Kinetics, 1999) by Kevin Lohraff, “A Paddler's Guide to Missouri: Featuring 58 Streams to Canoe and Kayak” (Missouri Department of Conservation, 2003), or “Backroads & Byways of Missouri: Drives, Day Trips & Weekend Excursions” (Countryman Press, 2008) by Archie Satterfield.
Interested in historical road trips? Follow Brett Dufur’s lead in “Exploring Lewis & Clark's Missouri” (Pebble Publishing, 2004). Want to combine several activities together? Keep in mind Charles Farmer’s “The Best of Fishing, Hunting, Camping, and Boating in Missouri” (University of Missouri Press, 2004). And, last but not least, no matter where you go and what you do, bring back your own travel stories, keeping in mind the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
All the books mentioned in the article and many more will be on display on the second floor of the Columbia Public Library.