Talking Travel with Road Trip USA writer Jamie Jensen

Avalon travel writer Jamie Jensen, whose travel guidebook, Road Trip USA, hit book stands earlier this month, took time from his busy book tour to answer a few questions about travel, writing, and road tripping across the country.

Don’t forget to enter the Gadling Giveaway of the latest edition HERE, or read my glowing Travel Read review of the book HERE.

Enjoy the interview!

BY: What is the most scenic/interesting/enjoyable stretch of road you’ve encountered?

JJ: One lifelong favorite (well, 30 years and counting…) is the famous stretch of Hwy-1 along the central California coast, through Big Sur. This is an amazing engineering and construction feat – carved out of the cliffs beginning in the 1920s; it offers incredible views and takes drivers to places we couldn’t otherwise reach. The combination of the natural world and the manmade improvements (not just the roadway, but the many rustic lodges and historic sites) is simply amazing – just take it slow!

The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina is another amazing road to drive, winding through the forests along the Appalachian crest, and for something very different I like to head down to Florida to drive the “Overseas Highway”, which is basically one long bridge over the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, from near Miami and the Everglades all the way to the tip of Key West.

New England has tons of great two-lane country roads-and perhaps the country’s most beautiful stretch of Interstate Highway, I-93 thru Franconia Notch. And even higher up in the mountains, the Rockies have at least two unforgettable roads, the wonderfully named “Million Dollar Highway” in Colorado, and the sinuous “Going-to-the-Sun Road” through the heart of Glacier National Park.

I could go on – but these are a good starter.

BY: What compelled you to travel nearly half a million miles of asphalt?

JJ: I don’t think I ever intended to spend so much time driving around – and certainly not to accumulate so many miles – but over the years I’ve kept looking at maps and wondering what these places really looked like, and then with Road Trip USA I’ve been going back again and again and keeping track of what’s new. So it has all added up. Then again, there is something like 6 million miles of paved roads across the country, so I’ve really barely scratched the surface.

BY: How did you gather all of the information about the places you traveled?

JJ: Because I’m interested in older roads, the ones that were main roads before the Interstate Highway system came thru in the 1960s, my first best source of ideas for places to travel was a series of 1930s and 1940s travel guides covering all the old US Highways-these were put together as a “New Deal” project for out-of-work writers, and were written by the likes of Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Jim Thompson.

The WPA guides are great stuff – and full of insights that still resonate today.

More practically, since I cover places to eat and sleep and have fun, as well as the history and culture of these different places, I used to write or call the sundry Chambers of Commerce and tourist promotion organizations for each state, region, city and town, and ask for their brochures and maps.

Now of course, all of that information is on the Internet – but nothing is as valuable as actually visiting these places and seeing (and tasting!) them for myself.

BY: What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage to traveling by car?

JJ: The advantages of traveling by car – especially in a country as huge and car-dependent as the USA – are numerous and probably obvious. Cars offer freedom to go where you want when you want, in comfort and at your own pace. And because it costs about the same to travel with four or more people as it does to go alone, the economics of driving over buying airplane or train tickets is pretty compelling.

That said, the downside of traveling by car is closely tied with the advantages – namely, what with sound systems and air conditioning, etc., cars are so comfortable that is sometimes means it can be hard to stop and actually experience the places you pass through.

So, despite the inertia of buzzing along at 70 mph, for a memorable road trip it’s important to make every effort to stop and get out of the car, even for a few minutes, so the sights and sounds can sink in, and really leave an impression.

BY: How did you score the gig to travel across the country and write this book – and what advice do you have for aspiring travel writers?

JJ: Before I wrote Road Trip USA, I had already established myself as a travel guidebook author, writing and overseeing guidebooks to California and all of the USA for a number of “traditional” publishers (Rough Guides, Michelin Guides, Fodor’s, and those nicely illustrated “Eyewitness Guides” from Dorling Kindersley) so I had a pretty good track record. When I started working on what became Road Trip USA, I never thought I would find enough sights to make a 900-page book, but nowadays the challenge is to keep it from getting too big!

My advice to aspiring travel writers is simply to write. Unfortunately, it is very hard to get paid very much for travel writing, but if you can combine it with other things, it may work out. Once you’ve written something, you’ll have it forever, but if you don’t write things down and tell your stories (even it’s just for yourself right now), the stories start to fade away. And who knows! Maybe tomorrow you’ll find a publisher who wants a whole book of your adventures. If you’ve written your stories along the way, you’ll be much better placed to take advantage of opportunities.

On a more positive note, with the wonderful world of the Internet, it is a lot easier for people to be “published” and reach interested readers directly (through websites and blogs etc), though I don’t know of anyone who is making anything like real money doing this.

BY: What will be your next project? More road tripping or are you growing roots in California?

JJ: That’s a good question. Since I finished the last edition of Road Trip USA, I switched gears a little, and have taken a 6-month trip to Berlin, where the relationship between history and tourism are so much more complicated than they are compared to say, getting your kicks on Route 66. For me, growing up in southern California during the Space Age 1960s with all the fear of Commie infiltrations and imminent nuclear war, it’s been fascinating to spend a length of time where so much horrible stuff happened. Though I don’t think I’m going to do a “Guilt Trip” alternative of my “Road Trip” work, I’m more interested than ever at looking into the mechanics of how we (as individuals, communities and as countries) “remember” history, through monuments and parks and preservation of “historic” places.

Gadling is currently accepting entries to a giveaway of Jamie’s Road Trip USA guidebooks. Entries are due by Friday, April 24 @ 5 p.m. EST!!!

Check out my review of Road Trip USA while you’re at it.