A woman came into the bookstore the other day asking about Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. She said she was traveling and wanted some good road books. We didn’t have it, so she settled on Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. However, she got me thinking about all the great road books out there, as well as reminiscing of my own days “on the road.” Blissful years in the decade-plus after college spent crisscrossing the continent by thumb or bus or train, or in various beat-up, rusted-out, baling-wired, strong-hearted vehicles: There was Gus who knew where the Milky Way was, and Hero who rode the wind on Flying Cloud Highway, and Clyde who burned through more tires than I went through part-time jobs, and Bashō, and Matilda, and Earl and Betsy-Lou. All of them were repaired from time to time with a sage smudge stick, duct tape and gentle pats on the dash board with a soothing, “C’mon, baby, just make it to the next town.” They all ended on the scrap heap, hopefully now reused, like organ donors, in new machines that are in motion. Motion is what is was all about.
Traveling is motion – as opposed to stagnation, paralysis, rigor mortis. When traveling, every moment is new and unexpected. Pulls you out of the mundane predictability of “same ol’ same ol’.” You feel firsthand the concept, “Everything is unfolding toward the highest possible good.” You realize that you have no idea what “should” happen, or what’s “supposed” to happen. The universe is expanding in its proper direction, Tao is Taoing toward Tao, the Road is leading to where the Road goes. Because of this, you learn quickly (or, if not, you get off the road) the futility and danger of making plans, or building up preconceived notions of where you’re going, when you’ll get there and what you’ll do. Instead you take each twist and turn as a gift. Being on the road is one of the most effective ways to learn how to live in the Eternal Moment.
This is part of the distinction between a traveler and a tourist. A traveler knows that “the point of the journey is not to arrive,” knows that itineraries and schedules are nothing but chains, lies and cruel jokes. But more than this, a tourist is from somewhere else, is something of a voyeur invading someone else’s world, while a traveler is from exactly where he or she is. The traveler isn’t looking in from outside. A question seldom asked by travelers is “Where are you from?” It has no meaning. When non-travelers would ask it, they would get vague answers, “back East,” or “the Coast,” or “nowhere.” The traveler wasn’t trying to be coy or mysterious or suspicious, they were trying to stay free.
He throws the full moon over his shoulder
and rumbles across the field
like a John Deere tractor
picking bits of stale tobacco from his arid lips,
arms swaying in unison
with the broad, rustling leaves
The crows scream his name like a battle cry:
“Hoka-Hey, Scarecrow – Today is a good day to die”
But his grey bones
like these dry stalks of corn
will stand their ground for yet another winter
Grandpa Scarecrow toes the asphalt snake,
rubs his gold tooth for luck,
and conjures a ride with his magic thumb
He settles back with yellowed hands on his knees
as the car fills with the smell of damp straw.
“Where ya headed, Grandpa?” I ask.
“Home,” he says.
(Published in The Lost Writings of Miscellaneous Jones. Heal the Earth Press, 1996.)
Here’s a list of my favorite road books. It’s not meant to be the list: there are others that are finer literature, and many great ones I just haven’t read. But these are the books that taught me much and inspired me greatly. They were good fellow travelers who are happier in the pocket of a backpack than on a bookshelf.
1. On the Road/Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s mad-dance classic is of course on everyone’s list of road books, but I combine it here with Dharma Bums, which I think is the better of the two. Both are essential.
2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
Zen taught me more about how to think than any other book I’ve encountered. Pirsig’s second book, Lila, is almost as good.
3. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
“Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! Traveling with me you find what never tires.” … “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.” … “Bearded, sunburnt, greynecked, forbidding; I have arrived!” Old Walt knew where the Milky Way was.
4. Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie
As great as the best of his songs. The reason that Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan could come into existence. What more could you want?
5. Narrow Road to the Deep North, Bashō
This along with The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton and The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel are travel sketches written in Haibun, prose mixed with Haiku, and are a journey into the soul, out of the self, into Kadō (“the Way of Poetry”), and out of this world, as well as being a journey to remote, dangerous and stunningly beautiful regions of Japan.
6. The Way of a Pilgrim, Anonymous
I came to this from reading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. It’s a book that should be re-read several times in one’s life. It explains why all the classic Russian novelists and playwrights are so good.
7. Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon
An amazing survey of who we are, where we are, and why we are. Least Heat Moon is the rightside bookend to Kerouac’s left.
8. The Air-conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller
I actually don’t remember much of this book, but Tropic of Cancer and Sexus/Nexus/Plexus are so amazing, I’m sure when I reread this one, I’ll agree it should be on my list.
Not Exactly “Roads” but …
Huck Finn, Mark Twain
The road here is a river, but this novel has everything you need to understand life.
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip, Tom Wolfe
Mostly not a road book, but the section of the bus trip with “Further” recounts one of the best road trips of all time, like Easy Rider with dozens of freaks and Neil Cassidy at the wheel.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
“For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in ‘Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’”
The same is absolutely true for Earth-bound hitchhiking.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
While remembered mostly for its time in the city of schizophrenic excess, the drive there is an admirable trip.
The Odyssey, Homer
If you haven’t read this you might not understand why it should actually top my list. But if you haven’t read this, you haven’t really lived.
What are your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know what I’ve missed.