On the Road with Kesey and Truman

(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the author of several books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Twitter: @wmgurst)

Today's the end of my guest blogging stint on BoingBoing and I'm in the mood for a summertime road trip. Unfortunately, my car is 1999 AWD Ford Explorer with a 5.0 V-8 and gets, maybe, 16 miles to the gallon. The thing about it is that nothing ever goes wrong with it. It's a great vehicle, gas mileage aside. Wired magazine ran a great article explaining that the greenest vehicle is the car you already own. So, If I do go somewhere, I'll rent a Civic instead.

A great road trip requires more than just driving. It should be something like and retracing the route of Lewis and Clark. Or retracing the route of H. Sargent Michaels 1905 "Photographic Guide for Motorists from Chicago to Lake Geneva."

Matthew Algeo new book, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, is the account of a great road trip. The book's conceit is marvelous: almost immediately after leaving office, ex-president Truman and his wife Bess got behind the wheel of a new Chrysler New Yorker and drove from Missouri to New York and back, as plain old private citizens.

truman drinks coke.jpg
Harry loved to drive, so he and Bess loaded up the trunk with a few suitcases and took off. No bodyguards, no secret service. Harry and Bess ate in roadside diners, stopped at country gas stations, and just made like normal people, as well as the recently retired leader of the greatest nation in the free world could do. Impossible to imagine Clinton, Bush, or Bush doing that (Carter, maybe.)

Algeo retraced the route, visiting the places Turman stopped at. He uses newspaper accounts and interviews with the still living but now usually elderly people that interacted with Harry - waitresses, hotel clerks, even a cop who stopped him on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for driving too slow - to weave together a terrificly interesting story.

So, I need a road trip. Maybe I'll retrace the route of the Ken Kesey's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test trip, or Hernando Desoto's quest for the fountain of youth through the Southeast. I'm still thinking of more.


  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It’s hard to do better than that, what with Pirsig having started from Minneapolis and all.

  2. This one’s close to (my) home, but it’s not that far from Minneapolis, either: The Red Coat Trail


    It’s a series of loosely-promoted highways that are pretty close to the path taken by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as they entered the Canadian West for the first time in late 1800s.

    Or try to find some roads that follow a river, as closely as possible. Following the Mississippi might seem trite, but there are loads of rivers, and many of them have roads alongside them.

    Or, create your own road trip. This might work better for a day trip, but sometimes I go out driving and try not to drive on pavement — all gravel, as much as possible. Sometimes you have lots of choices, other times your choices are more circumscribed. But you always end up at interesting near-ghost towns, passing cairns and forgotten cemeteries along the way.

  3. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon meanders around the country by means of secondary, or ‘blue’ highways. Another candidate?

  4. I was unable to find a Wired article saying that the greenest car is one you already own; I only found a comment to that effect. Does anyone know the source for that statement?

  5. When he’s not futilely (but goodheartedly) trying to fix the Middle East, Carter pretty much *does* do this, albeit with a couple of SS folks. He’s quite the man about town in Plains/Americus, GA. Sadly, I think he’ll be the last to have a somewhat normal post-public life.

  6. I did the Highway 61 road trip from Minneapolis down to New Orleans back in ’93. Beautiful country, rollin’ along next to the river. The bluff country in SE MN is especially beyutiful.

  7. I want to point out that the Nez Perce Trail follows the route of the Lewis and Clark trail through Montana, Idaho and Oregon. There’s a top-notch book about it, called ‘Following the Nez Perce Trail’ by Cheryl Wilfong, that is quite possibly the best historical trail guide ever written.

    Imagine being a tourist in Yellowstone, out and about enjoying the scenery when before you know it you’re being held captive by a thousand Nez Perce who are on the run.

    Enjoy your road trip; it may be the last chance for recreation for quite a while.

  8. Why look to the past? Clarence Thomas regularly travels the country in a motor home during his off-time from the supreme Court.

  9. Make your own path by walking (driving) it.

    “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.” – Thoreau


  10. I’ve always wanted to retrace the steps of Steinbeck in “Travels with Charley”, complete with dog and tiny homemade RV of course.

  11. Forget driving – take Amtrak instead! I’ve crossed the country several times by automobile and a few times by train, and Amtrak is definitely more fun as I always meet the most interesting people on board. You can buy multi-city tickets that allow you to get on and off at different stops along the way and anyway it’s good karma to support non-automobile forms of transportation.

  12. Yeah, create your own route, something that reflects your interests. Visit people, places, and/or things that are meaningful, interesting, featured in books (or other works) that you like, etc.

    When I moved from LA to Seattle, I took a road trip and visited every Lockheed Blackbird in the west. I zig-zagged as far east as Tucson and Salt Lake, called people at a couple Air Force bases to make sure they’d let me in… (Only got in trouble with security once). I had seen most of the Blackbirds before, but it was a fun 10-day road trip, including lots of neat stuff: Saw many neat airplanes I had never seen before, crawled around an old B-52 being restored for museum display, went into the old XP-59 hangar at Edwards which currently house the X-34 spaceplanes, toured the Boneyard, crawled through the belly of a Guppy, saw the X-48 fly (and other stuff at NASA Dryden)… good times. Besides: Add that to some other trips in the past (New York, Dayton, Virginia, Duxford…) and I have now seen 20 of the 30 Blackbirds in existence.

  13. For another option, I’d recommend retracing the steps of the journey in THE MAJIC BUS, by Douglas Brinkley. He’s a history prof who invents an ‘experimental’ class and ropes a bunch of his students into a cross-country trip visiting America.

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