Roads – Larry McMurtry

Another Monday, another blog, another pair of shameless cats bathing themselves directly behind my chair.

Here’s an interesting one for you: Roads, by Larry McMurtry. (Yes, that Larry McMurtry.)

So this is a road trip book, but it’s unlike any road trip book I’ve read. First, he’s not going on a Great Road Trip. Instead, over the period of several months, he takes multiple short road trips. Day-long trips. Maybe a couple days. He flies to a certain destination and drives home from there, and vice versa.

Sound odd?

It is. It’s also fascinating as a concept.

See, he’s not trying to see the country, like so many road trippers do. He’s trying to see the highways. He’s driving all over the country to do particular sections of highway, ones with personal, cultural, or historical significance. He’s not out to meet the locals, see the sights, no. He’s there for the asphalt and the dotted line.

There’s some color commentary as he passes certain things (see quotes below), but he’s not for stopping and exploring. He cares more about literary reference and author abodes than adventure.

And it works. Somehow what you think should be the most boring read (hours upon hours in a rental car in the Midwest) ends up being soothingly enjoyable. Calming and entertaining at the same time.

Does this count as a travel book? He’s traveling and it’s a book. But it doesn’t come anywhere close to the sort of feel you get when reading a “normal” travelogue. So what is it? The back describes it as travel writing, but… would I call it that?

I don’t really know. It’s unique, and the experience of reading it is unique. You do feel like you’re on the highway with a Midwesterner, cruising along, listening to his thoughts, rarely exiting the vehicle, but always admiring the sky and the fields.

As always, some quotes for your reading pleasure:

“Other than curiosity, there’s no particular reason for these travels–just the old desire to be on the move. My destination is also my route, my motive only an interest in having the nomad in me survive a little longer. I’m not attempting to take the national pulse, or even my own pulse. I doubt that I will be having folksy conversations with people I meet as I travel. Today, in fact, I drove 770 miles, from Duluth, Minnesota, to Wichita, Kansas, speaking only about twenty words […]. The development of credit-card gas pumps, microwaves, and express motels has eliminated the necessity for human contact along the interstates. It is now possible to drive coast to coast without speaking to a human being at all: you just slide your card, pump your gas, buy a couple of Hershey bars, perhaps heat up a burrito, and put the pedal back to the metal.”

“In the main the great travelers, male or female, tend to be obsessed people; only obsession would get them across the distances they cross, or carry them through the hardships they face in the deserts, in the jungles, on the ice. They seldom attain and could perhaps not really afford wisdom, since wisdom, in most cases, would have kept them from ever setting out.”

“The challenge of the solitary traveler is always the same: to find something out there that the reader will enjoy knowing about, or at least, that the reader can be persuaded to read about. Usually, if there is no one but themselves in the narrative, the great travel writers rely on the extremes to which the environment forces them to produce the interest […].”

“The short stretch of it [I-20] that I drove this time was a road badly in need of adoption by some litter martyr–there was enough litter just along a fifteen-mile stretch to start a new landfill. Locals apparently didn’t notice it, perhaps because they were in such a hurry to get to one of the huge, commandingly ugly malls just off the interstate. The most eye-catching billboards along this stretch were for microsurgical vasectomy reversal, a growth industry in Texas, evidently. A lot of good old boys must have come to feel that, after all, they want families rather than just fucking.”

“Or, perhaps, the occupants of the little narrow houses on the steep hillsides–houses built so close to the road that their occupants could have heard the radios, or even the conversations, from passing cars–simply went on living their normal Appalachian lives, washing machines and old women on the porches, dogs under the porches, as if the highway that carried hundreds of thousands of strangers within thirty yards of their bedrooms didn’t exist. The road was for strangers, but the hills were theirs, and the hills were enough.”

“Columbus itself has grown a good crop of cornstalklike postmodern skyscrapers since last I was through it; it even produced a respectable traffic jam, though later in the day, at Kansas City, I was to see a really mature traffic jam, one that stretched for eleven miles: fortunately the mature traffic jam was producing road rage on the other side of the road.”

“But people who allow their lives to be determined by convenience are not the sort of people who flourish in L.A. The city is a lot of things, but it’s never convenient–except, perhaps, for its eccentrics, one of whom was a little old man who used to drive up and down Santa Monica Boulevard in a car shaped like a yellow shoe. He was a cobbler–it probably felt normal to be drive to work in his shoe car; but for the rest of us, it was a sight to see.”