Blog, History, Road Books, The Yankee Road, Travel, Writing

American Road Books

"Not only for Cyrus’ sake did Xenophon march up toward the Persians.
But in search of a road which led up to Zeus."
Diogenes Laërtius

Americans have added, in great numbers, to the road book literature. American stories of travel and roads have been conditioned by the general habit of a people constantly on the move. The road book, both fiction and non-fiction, was standard fare in twentieth-century writing. Toward the end of the century, Kris Lackey attempted, in vain, to categorize this literature. Road books — those that use the road as a metaphor for life or as a means to connect with life — tend to defy pigeonholing, although Lackey manages to discern three major road themes: rediscovery of the self, observing the American condition, and the transcendental connection to the broader universe.

Whether it is Robert Pirsig, crossing the Great Plains to Montana to find his shattered former self; or Jack Kerouac as Sal Paradise, looking for God and girls; or Sallie Tisdale, Stepping Westward in search of her West; or William Kinsella as Ray, leaving his field of dreams to look for his dead father in Fenway Park or Hibbing, Minnesota, the goal is the same. Somewhere on the road an experience will allow them to realize who they really are. The road that takes us west, especially, takes us to our real selves.

The road also allows us to see and meet others. If the quest for self-realization is a solitary journey, one can observe others alone or in company, as Bill Bryson did in his reminiscences about family trips in all directions from Des Moines, Iowa. Steinbeck, with his dog, Charley, was technically solitary on the road, and William Least Heat-Moon was quite alone, having left a failed marriage and a career to visit small towns and rural areas on the “blue highways.” Dayton Duncan, too, traveled solo to western counties that, by the standards of the 1890 census, have reverted to the population density of the frontier. Others look for adventures on the road — to ride with truckers, to visit sports halls of fame, or to comment on the various sociologies of suburbs, gated communities, ethnic neighborhoods, farmers, and latter-day pioneers.

There is also the desire, like Laertius in interpreting Xenophon’s experience, to travel the road to connect to the universe, to Something Greater. Often, this means walking, as Xenophon did, a more personal experience than the windshield can provide. The “road to Zeus” now leads to the vortex at Sedona, to the edge of the Grand Canyon, along the Appalachian Trail and the paths of Cape Cod, to Mesa Verde and around Niagara Falls, and back to Walden Pond. America might not have miraculous shrines such as Fatima or Lourdes or, except for the Latter-Day Saints, great religious centers such as Mecca or Rome, but it is infused with the Yankee transcendental spirit, and its “shrines” are legion.

So the transformation of life into space leads naturally into the crossing of space — travel — as a means of signifying life’s changes. Telling a tale about road books that have affected or symbolized a life’s phases seemed a good route to personal rediscovery. Creating a road book offers a chance to observe its condition. Why is America the way it is? Following Lackey, we can then get on with these transcendental considerations. But, first things first….

Let’s get on the road and travel the rutted wagon roads west that carried many thousands of Yankee pioneers out of New England, past the Great Lakes and prairie farmland, and west through the mountains to Oregon and California. Those old, rutted roads were transformed into federal highways in the 1920s, with US 20 becoming the longest in the country. The stories of those who travelled and settled along this way are really the stories of building modern America. The Yankee Road has hundreds of them.

Footnote: Diogenes Laërtius lived about 600 years after Xenophon and included a short sketch of him in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers (R.D.Hicks translator, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1925)) Book II, Chapter 6, note #59.