I picked Roads – Driving America’s Great Highways up on a lark at the Wylie library on Tuesday and finished it Wednesday. Larry McMurtry is an excellent author and that transfers well from his more familiar fiction to this semi-travel book on driving the major roads of the United States. He starts off the book with an explanation of why he’s writing the book and the genesis for it. Many of the great American travel stories are about the backroads and their people, always the people, their lives and how they interact with the road. McMurtry has no interest in this and in fact expects to talk very little to people. His is more of a wanderlust, an exploration of the major arteries of the nation at the end of the 20th century, what those lifelines provide and mean to the country more as a whole and less at an individual level.
The book is arranged into chapters by the month in which the trip was taken, January, February (2), March, April, May, June (2), July, August and September. His pattern is to fly into a major city, pick up a rental car and take off. Many of the trips are planned ahead of time while others just have a beginning and an end with several options on getting from Point A to Point B. McMurtry isn’t concerned with lengthy trips and seems to average well over 700 miles a day when he’s on the road. Again, these are not leisure trips in the normal sense of the word, they are journeys to see and relate things seen along the major highways of America.
This would be a difficult book for most people to make interesting but McMurtry is so widely read and seems to have such an encyclopedic understanding of the authors of our country that he engages the reader by continually mentioning authors whose backgrounds or stories are based in the cities or states that McMurtry travels through. Many of the authors are long forgotten to most but McMurtry relates their literature as if he read them yesterday. This moves the book along, not as a series of roads that he is driving but a collection of authors that he has read and known, their strengths and weaknesses. Even when the authors aren’t related to the area in some way, McMurtry tightly intertwines them into the trip. Nelson Algren appears in the first chapter on I-35 from Duluth to Oklahoma City, “a valuable if flawed midwestern writer” by McMurtry’s own words, brought into the story based on a quote about where to eat.
He drives many roads that he is familiar with, in particular those coming from the East back to his home in Archer City. He lived in Washington, D.C. for an extended time and made the drive from there to Archer City many times. He chooses to mostly retrace that same route for the book, following the 66, the 81, the 40 and the 30 to get back home. His time in D.C. seems to have been both extremely positive and extremely negative. He opened a bookstore there with Marcia Carter and by all accounts was very successful for over 30 years. He talks about being fortunate to open the store in a period where the rare book market was starting to gain popularity, especially in a city of such history as D.C. But D.C. is also where he had heart surgery on December 2nd, 1991. He makes it very clear that he feels like he died personally and spiritually if not physically then. He left soon after and this trip for the book is one of the few times he’s returned since.
The chapter written in August is the most personal, detailing the roads of his youth around the ranch in Archer City where he grew up. In this chapter, we see what it was like to be a child growing up in rural Archer County, unnamed dirt roads as the main thoroughfares. He speaks matter-of-factly on the change from transportation as a half day adventure via horseback to the feeling of entitlement we experience today getting on a jet and traveling halfway around the country in 2 hours. This chapter is a personal examination, not just of his youth but of the changes that have occurred in transportation. He has written a book around the premise of driving 700 miles a day, seeing many things superficially. His father lived or worked on this ranch his whole life and saw one thing, the country, deeply and with meaning. Transportation is much the same. We hustle and bustle to get somewhere and then continue the hustle and bustle once we get there, never stopping to drink in what surrounds us. As he ages, McMurtry is beginning to see those changes clearly and with some nostalgia.
The final chapter goes from Seattle to Omaha and is one of the best. It’s a road that he hasn’t driven before. Most of his trips seem to end up gravitating back towards the plains. In that sense, this one is no different. Along the way, he finds the perfect road for those of us who love and appreciate the openness and stark beauty of the plans. His writing grows more introspective in this chapter and because the most of the book has lacked that, this chapter has a power to it that is fascinating.
This is a story of the major highways in America as they relate to McMurtry, the literature of the states and an examination of the meaning of those roads. If you appreciate a road trip, I think you’ll like this book.