This past November I did something I absolutely hate doing: Sitting in my father’s attic, I resigned myself to needing to thin out my book collection a little. Basically, I’d been holding onto four massive boxes—too heavy to be moving up and down that rickety attic ladder—of books from before I expatriated, some eight years ago. It was time.
In the page-ruffling fury of sorting, I started pulling out titles, stuff bought long ago but never read, which I thought might be of interest now. My plan was to bring a few books back to Guatemala with me, and here, they would either sink (wind up on take one, leave one shelf in a hostel) or swim (be read before being left on a take one, leave one shelf).
That’s how I would up reading On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America, a book I’d bought used some years ago in Korea. Even now as a travel writer, the write-up left me guessing as to why a younger me (let alone the current me) would chose it. Written by Bill Graves, an ex-military grandpa, On the Back Roads is one man’s campervan journey across the Southwest US, published by the meager press of AtticusBooks.com. Who knows how it got to Korea?
However, having finally reached the last dregs of the literature I rescued that day, it again was time. Honestly, for me, the book started off much like it sounds. Graves, who features primarily in RV enthusiast magazines, has a sort of Lake Wobegon tone to him: A wholesome, gun-toting, responsible-cocktail-in-the-evening persona. The type of guy goes out, buys himself a caravan, and takes trips on his own. That fella striking up conversations at a truck stop diner.
Soon though, I got over that. It’s something I really try to do when I read these days: Find the thing that made someone publish the book. The first time I noticed it with On the Back Roads is when Graves writes about the old Harvey House restaurants that used to line the railroads heading out west. This is before dining cars were a thing. Consequently, these fancy eateries were spaced out about the distance it took to travel from breakfast to lunch or lunch to dinner. The history was peculiar and made me want to know more.
Then, I started looking for it. Graves was a master of details, of catching great moments of characters, of history, of characters dealing with disappearing histories. The stories were short and sweet and stacked with a finite knowledge of small towns at once unnecessary yet somehow fascinating. What he was discovering on those back roads was that little-life America has never disappeared nor lost the quirkiness that has garnered it such infamy and intrigue.
Great oddities began to surface: A town in Oregon where it is illegal not to have a gun, a guy who “hunts” ants in the desert or more accurately harvests them to send them off to ant farms. Everywhere Graves goes (at least in the book), he finds these unusual good ole folks or these every-town-has-them stories of triumph or regret. He is obviously fascinated; thus, it is difficult not to be as a reader. Hey! Old Man Graves was teaching me something.
It’s something I often forget in my travel writing. I get lost in wanting to live out some great adventure, to excavate from within an unbelievable tale of myself. However, much more interesting than me traipsing across ruins or hiking amongst giant sequoia are the stories that brought me there in the first place. Graves had a great nose for finding the yarn of wherever he was, from California to Wyoming, Oregon to Arizona, and in between.
His extensive research of the minutiae of each minute place rendered something worth reading, even if written by and from the perspective of someone vastly different from me. So, yet again, a book has taught me about the world, myself and how to see myself in the world. My adventures in travel reading continue to be worthwhile, and I hope it’s fun for you to read about, an inspiration to pick up the odd book or two or even take-on your own reading expedition.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.