Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Road Trip Holiday Treats

Season’s Greetings!

October’s pumpkin patches have turned into Christmas tree lots, and as the return of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole tunes to muzak soundtracks makes audibly clear, yet another year is coming an end. It may seem that summer ended only last month, but now it’s time to get into the spirit of the season, and go shopping.

So, full of hope for Peace on Earth, and with goodwill to all men, women and children, here are a few ideas for gifts and offerings for all your road-tripping friends and extended family. Most take the form of books, mainly since 1. I like books, and 2. in recent months I’ve been spending way too much of my time unpacking the boxes and boxes of books I’ve had locked away in storage units. Apart from the dust, my book-sorting been a surprisingly positive experience, allowing me to reconnect with well-thumbed old friends, and to find a few (well, lots actually) of other books which I'd picked up here and there but until recently never got around to reading.

For those whose shelf space is already stretched, I’ve spiced up my road trip book club with some other potential stocking stuffers: magazine subscriptions and memberships, plus a few great films to watch while huddled around the plasma / LCD hearth, all guaranteed to bring joy into the receivers’ * heart.

* Guarantee is limited to nice people with open minds—anyone who doesn’t like these products and gift ideas is not covered by the aforementioned promise.

Happy Holidays,

Jamie Jensen


Road Trip Gift Ideas: Great Books

Designs on the Land: Exploring America From the Air, by Alex S. MacLean

For anyone who enjoys staring out of airplane windows at the abstracted jigsaw puzzle unfolding below, this bountifully illustrated full-color photography book will bring hours of pleasure. The more than 400 thoughtfully framed low-altitude images, which show off in intricate detail the inner and outer beauty (and lack thereof…) of our natural and man-made landscapes – family farms and central pivot irrigation circles, country roads and cloverleaf interchanges, big-box parking lots, housing subdivisions and more – are complemented by a range of short interpretive essays.

Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, by Dayton Duncan.
The best travel book since Blue Highways, this marvelous tale retraces the route blazed by the Corps of Discovery on their epic adventure. With a combination of concise history lessons, captivating storytelling, and wry humor, Duncan vividly points out what has and hasn’t changed in the 200-odd years since the captains first trekked across the country and back. The author later retraced these steps to help make Ken Burns’ magnificent TV program on Lewis & Clark, and another of Duncan’s projects includes the companion to the recent Ken Burns “National Parks” PBS series.

Roads to Quoz, by William Least-Heat Moon.
Thinking of Blue Highways, the latest effort by the café-loving author of that roadside classic is this collection of avuncular essays, which capture in prose the timeless allure of backroad wanderings – chancing upon stories great and small, looking for those ineffably odd but endearing qualities the writer dubs “Quoz”… .One of my favorite tales describes the efforts of “Victory Highway” and ‘National Road” US-40 expert (and longtime Road Trip USA supporter !) Frank Brusca to document and share the wealth of history and culture along that great old highway.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, by Bill Bryson.
Iowa-born British transplant returns to America in search of material for his sarcastic commentary on contemporary life. Hilariously funny in parts, mean-spirited in others, and packed with trivial truths about life in the land of liberty. This is the book that started Bryson’s enviably prolific career.

Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Street and Highways, by Roger M. Knutson.
Lighthearted look at that under-studied ecosystem, the highway. Besides being a helpful guide to identifying the sundry dead objects along the roadside, the book also details the natural life and habitats of the unfortunate road-killed creatures.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck.
Rambling around “this monster of a land” in his camper Rocinante, accompanied only by his eponymous French poodle, Steinbeck returns to his California haunts from self-imposed exile in New York to find that, even if you can’t go home again, there are many intriguing things along the way. Written 50 years ago, but still vivid and insightful, Steinbeck’s memoir is a timely reminder of how Interstate car culture has changed contemporary America.

Finally, here are two new books I haven’t read but have heard (mainly on NPR, as both authors are NPR contributors) great things about. First up: Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax. The extended title pretty much sums it up, and Reuben lovers may well enjoy every slice.

The other, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo, describes an unimaginably unpretentious retirement of the 33rd US President, who from 1945 to 1953 lead the country into the Atomic Age, thru two ferocious wars and one Cold War. What did he do? Hit the highway and see the country, eating at diners and staying at roadside motels, accompanied only by wife Bess – without a single Secret Service agent or (at first...) a reporter in tow.

Those were the days....


Road Trip Movies

Wild Strawberries. OK – it’s in black and white, and is not about the USA, but this late 1950s Ingmar Bergman masterpiece is a subtle cinema classic that still knocks the socks off those sentimental road trip “journey of discovery” movies. In Wild Strawberries, a taciturn old man ponders eternally difficult questions about the meaning of life, and raises thought-provoking themes about self-awareness and shared humanity as he journeys from feeling pangs of regret and anxiety to possessing a refreshing sense of peace and reconciliation, all in a weekend’s drive.

For some less cerebral, all-American movie-going road-tripping fun, check out such varied flicks as Mad Max (Prescient? Let’s hope not!); Thelma and Louise; the Coen Brothers Homeric saga "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; and the oddball classic, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And if you can bear a bit of irony, black humor, and naked wrestling, you might also enjoy Borat, the cross-country travelogue by the creator of Ali G. and Bruno.

For more ideas, there’s a pretty full list of road-related movies on Wikipedia.

Magazines and Memberships

Saveur Magazine – Though the name aptly suggests a gourmet orientation, this foodie favorite covers all aspects of making and enjoying great food around the world, from family farms preserving heirloom tomatoes to the finest Oregon Pinot Noirs. This month, for example, the magazine includes a vivid coverage of road food along Route 66 in Albuquerque NM. Available at most newsstands, though the $20 a year subscription will save you more than 60% off the cover price.

The Society for Commercial Archeology is a non-profit all-volunteer organization working to preserve and interpret roadside culture. Efforts cover everything from diners to giant roadside dinosaurs, and the enterprise is geared toward appreciation and enjoyment of quirks and crannies of the highway environment. Anyone interested in the cultural landscape lining America’s highways and byways will want to join; dues are $45 a year, and members receive a full-color magazine and a quarterly newsletter, which details preservation efforts as well as get-togethers for annual tours of different American regions.

Especially at this time of year, when cars refuse to start and batteries stop holding their charge, the American Automobile Association is an indispensable resource, and no traveler in his or her right mind should be on the road without a membership card. Besides the free roadside assistance, 24 hours a day across the country, they also offer free maps, useful guidebooks, and tons of related information. As a valuable bonus, each regional organization publishes its own magazine related to regional roads and road trips.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the irreplaceable, and fighting to save historic buildings and the neighborhoods and landscapes they anchor. They also help support more than 200 Historic Hotels of America, and for $20 a year you get a wonderful bimonthly magazine, Preservation. A recent issue of Preservation highlighted an unexpected upside to the credit crunch and economic downturn – property developers are slower to flatten aging roadside landmarks like the “doo-wop” neon motels of Wildwood NJ.

OK -- here's to a happy Christmas / Channukah / Solstice !

Drive safe, and have a wonderful rest of 2009.



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