Sunday, 28 March 2010

The roads less traveled

We started out with a LOT of guidebooks – to the US, to RVing, various states, etc. But given space constraints, we had to limit them to just one, a gift of Daniel’s mom, Barbara: ‘Road Trip USA, Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways’.

And boy, were we happy. The main premise of the book’s author, Jamie Jensen, is that by avoiding the interstate, you get to see the real America. He proposes eleven east-west and north-south routes across the US, pointing out lesser known history, museums, hotels, restaurants, state parks and gloriously kitschy Americana along the way.

Hopping-on and hopping-off eight of these routes, we started calling the book Jamie. We were also inspired to seek out our own smaller roads.

We wrote to Jamie, asking if we could interview him, and very kindly, he agreed. It turns out he has a UK connection, and even spent time living in Cornwall. Which is funny, since that’s where Barbara bought the book.

Here goes:

Q: How did you get started on your book? Or, better put, when did your interest in avoiding big highways become an obsession? Did you set out with the aim of writing a book?

A: My book Road Trip USA came out of years of travel around America, first as a kid on summer vacations, and later as a travel writer (working for UK-base guide books series like Rough Guides and Dorling Kindersley...) I did a USA book for both these companies, but the more I wrote for them the more I discovered that the places I found most interesting were far away from what my editors wanted to hear about -- they wanted me to cover cities, while I felt that the best things America offered were its small towns and wide-open spaces.

Q: You traveled well over 400,000 miles while doing research for this book. How hard was it to narrow down your chosen routes to just 11?

A: What I try to do in the routes I cover in Road Trip USA is to show travelers that they can go anywhere they want to go, without having to deal with the tedium of the Interstate freeway system. Of course, there are 100s of thousands of miles of scenic and country roads all over America, so the competition to get in the book was pretty fierce -- the roads all had to offer great travel experiences, but still be practical as well. What I basically ended up doing was rely on an earlier generation of roads; the ones I cover are generally considered the "old roads", but these were the main roads from the 1920s up until the mid-1960s, which is really the "classic era" for roadside Americana, so my roads tend to have tons more character than the more "modern" freeways.

Q: Did you travel primarily on your own, or did you have company? What vehicle(s) did you drive on your trips? You mainly recommend motels, but occasionally mention campgrounds – where did you tend to stay on your trips? Why?

A: I tend to mix things up -- for my most intense research trips, I travel on my own, but when I get somewhere nice I am usually met by my family (wife and 2 boys), or I try to connect with some friends. Where I stay depends on the place I'm traveling thru (and the weather!). In wide-open places like Arizona or Utah, I try to camp out and enjoy the natural world, but in the east coast and urban areas I rely more on motels and hotels.

When I was first writing the book (back in the early 1990s), I posted the text up on "gopherspace", the Internet predecessor to websites, and I got lots of input from people as well as a few "couch-surfing" invitations -- I still try to connect with people in the places I pass through, though I haven;t had as much luck with all these "social media" networks...

Q. Did you have any major mishaps on your travels?

A: Not really. I got a flat tire once -- and I got pulled over for speeding, but the officer

Q: We really like the book’s period graphics and styling. Was the retro theme part of your intention? To what extent was your background in architecture an influence?

A: Thank you -- I really enjoy collecting all the mages and graphics and logos that we use in the book. Having worked with other guide book series, I had a pretty good idea about how I wanted Road Trip USA to look and feel -- I definitely wanted to appeal to die-hard "Blue Highways" travelers, and also to people who never knew they were interested in road trips, but still responded once I got the book into their hands. The architectural angle is less clear -- though because I grew up in the post-war, car craziness of LA, I guess I have a natural affinity for all the great "Googie" and streamline design that makes roadside Americana so much fun to see.

Q: How did you fund your travels? What was your daily budget?

A: My first US travels were as cheap as you can get -- long before I ever thought of writing about travel, I set off across the country with about $200 in my pocket. Because I had all the time in the world, and no real destination, I found odd jobs here and there as I traveled -- I was hitch-hiking a lot, and standing by the road is a time-honored way to let people know you are available. Working -- cutting hay in Kansas in the middle of summer , sweating like the proverbial pig -- was a great way to get to know people, and I would usually get a few dollars as well as a bed and some square meals. My initial $200 lasted me more than 2 years, but these days I can blow thru that much "dosh" in a day or two.

Q: How much traveling do you do now? Do you take your kids with you?

A: I still travel as often as I can -- not months on end as I used to, but enough so that I get travel most of "my" roads every few years. 40,000 miles every new edition -- about every 3 years. The boys come on shorter trips, like up and down the California coast every Thanksgiving -- and now they're nearly teenagers I think they'll get more and more out of cross-country trips, too. We stop for a lot of baseball games, which gives us a theme for our trips.

Q: You spent some time living in the UK – what were you doing? Did you do much travel there and in Europe? How does travel there compare with USA travel?

A: I first came to England in 1987, hoping to work in social housing, but it was just when Margaret Thatcher made public housing illegal, so it wasn't exactly a "good career move". After a while I did notice an ad in the Monday Guardian saying some small publisher was looking for a writer to cover California, so I applied and got hired to write the Rough Guide to California. It was something like the 8th book in what has gone on to become a whole library of 100s of titles, so it was fun to watch the enterprise grow from a basement flat into a cornerstone of the Penguin list -- and it was a great introduction to British culture, for sure. Every year I go to England with my wife (who is from London and Yorkshire, and gets terribly homesick) and the kids -- they've had two full years of English schools, and a year in Berlin, too, so they are pretty international.

I like European travel for the coffee, pastries and architecture -- but there's nothing over there that compares to the sense of excitement I feel driving down some lonesome American road, with the radio on.

Q: What is your all-time favorite route across the USA?

A: I'd have to say US-50, between San Francisco and Washington DC -- tons of history, and a full range of American landscapes.

Q. You now live on the California coast – where else have you seen along the way that could tempt you to move?

A: I love and have lived for nice lengths of time in Cornwall -- it has everything northern California has (gorgeous scenery, fresh ocean air, good beer...). Vermont is nice, too -- but it's a long way to the ocean. And if someone gave me a Tuscan villa, I suppose I could consider that.

Q: Do you prefer to travel during the summer, or off-season? Why?

A: I'm definitely an off-peak traveler -- I hate crowds (unless we are all in a stadium and they are rooting on my team!)

Q. Have you done any RV-ing? If so, what kind of vehicle did you use?

A: My first big trip as a kid was in a pick-up truck camper, traveling with my Dad and brothers around all the western National Parks. RVs are convenient, but I find them a bit isoloating -- I hate having to hassle with parking. My own road trip vehicle is a converted Volkswagen Eurovan / Winnebago camper -- the newer kind of VW, with a V6 engine that has enough power to go uphills, unlike some of my earlier "classic" VW buses.

Q. Do you like vintage RVs? Any preference among Airstreams, Spartans, Avalons, Shastas, etc?

A: I love them all! But all I know about them, I learned at the Shady Dell in Bisbee AZ...

Q: Are you currently working on any new projects?

A: Along with some tech-savvy friends I am trying to bring my whole Road Trip USA effort into the digital world -- we may well have an "iPhone App" up and running by summer. Just don't ask me how it works!


  1. but the officer...??

    Thanks for the recommendation, this book sounds awesome! Will go order right away.. I found your blog through FOTR, and will mark it in my bookmarks!

  2. I have to send this link to my brother-in-law. He is the king of brown signs and never fails to stop when they pass one. His kids have to be some of the most educated kids in the country when it comes to historic stops. Great interview.

  3. Thanks to both of you, glad you enjoyed the interview. The book is excellent.