The Best Travel Book You’ve Never Read

“These beaten and vandalized towns are the bloodshot eyes of America. … This is America muttering to itself late at night in the kitchen before stumbling off to bed. The allure of places like Two Guns is that they feel like prophecy: this is how the world might look if civilization ever came undone. But it hasn’t. Not yet. So you look around and wonder what the hell happened here, how it got to be like this.

Two Guns, Arizona, is one of the burnt-out and gritty places James Reeves writes about in The Road to Somewhere (W.W. Norton, 2011), as rich a travel memoir as you’ll ever read and the best one you never have. The cover is glossy, the paper stock expensive, many of his lonesome photos full-bleed. There are 400 pages, and two are dedicated to nothing more than an image of the author’s grandfather and three words. You might think books this lush don’t get published anymore.

But the words themselves-those are caked in the dust and grime of the author’s vast and aimless wander across the country. Reeves initially intended to reacquaint himself with America beyond New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. Soon, the six-year quest turned into a soul-search about modern manhood, as Reeves wondered what had become of his father’s and grandfather’s America, that dignified place where a 30-year-old could easily afford a house with a tidy lawn, raise a family, and find a job that would support those things-and be perfectly happy.

Looking for meaning through a windshield for thousands of miles is hardly a new idea, but Reeves’s raw observations and melancholy introspections-about the lack of grandeur at the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the way road-trippers obsessively calculate arrival times-are pure poetry, a level that would make lesser scribes want to give up. Writing, that is, not reading. It’s impossible to get out of the car when Reeves is at the wheel.

Here’s a Q&A with the author, including something special he’s creating on Route 66:This is pedantic, but how did you record such lush thoughts and observations with your hands on the steering wheel?
By pulling over every few miles, which is why it took forever to put this book together.

Also pedantic, but did you use any GPS or Google Maps while wandering the country?
I took my first drive in 2005 when I had a dumb little telephone that only made phone calls. On that trip I immediately got terrifically lost and abandoned the idea of an itinerary. I simply pointed the car west and took the roads that seemed most interesting. I truly felt off the grid for much of the trip. The following year, I took another cross-country drive with my brand new smartphone and I became phenomenally addicted to watching that little blue dot squeak along the map. Year after year technology dictated the way I drove and how I documented the things I saw. Soon I was posting snapshots and ruminations on social channels and internet people were guiding me to a great German restaurant in west Texas or a record store in Cheyenne. I no longer remember what it feels like to be lost and alone on the road.

Did you ever fail to find something worthwhile to write about?
At first I set off with a vague notion of understanding the “Main Street USA” and “real America” sloganeering that infected our political scene after the September 11th attacks. I lived in New York City at the time and I did not understand why New York was not also considered the “real America.” After all, isn’t New York simply a hyper-concentrated version of the forces that shaped this country? So I decided to rent a car and take a look around. I saw abandoned train trestles in Wyoming painted with burning towers that said “We Will Never Forget. Hoo-ah!” and I heard chatter in Memphis about a possible terrorist attack on Graceland. I thought I could connect the dots into a statement about our politics, polarization, and paranoia-then I realized this was feeding into manufactured media hype and, worse yet, boring. I gave up on seeking and simply drove around looking at things. I became fascinated by ghost towns and other American ruins, by the in-between places and the ultramundane, by what Don DeLillo called “the white spaces on the map.”

What kept the America you stumbled across from becoming rote and redundant?
Most of America is rote and redundant. I’ve driven 150,000 and most them were spent watching an endless tape loop of cruel cinderblock architecture, parking lots, and name brands promising big savings and no money down. No matter if I’m in Maine, New Mexico, or Montana, I intuitively know how to navigate these spaces, sensing where a Starbucks or a Jo-Ann Fabric ought to be. The most interesting places are those that fell victim to systematic neglect, cities like Detroit and New Orleans, or the Salton Sea and the forgotten towns along Route 66.

Were these trips just one shabby motel after another?
I love shabby motels, particularly the ones that still use blinking neon to advertise color Zenith televisions. I feel the weather of strangers passing through and I remember that the American road is a place of possibility, transition, crisis and adventure. Old motels are one of the few places along our modern roads with personality, which may not always be pleasant or hygenic but there’s more soul at the Sundown Motel than an anonymous room with flat screens, corporate furniture and free wireless internet.

I can’t quite tell were you enchanted, or at least stimulated, by desolate America?
Enchanted, heartbroken and inspired. There are so many gorgeous buildings and dignified towns that have been left behind that could be reclaimed as meaningful spaces-which is why I’m thrilled to be working with the artist Candy Chang on transforming an abandoned gas station along Route 66 into a library of philosophy.

I haven’t read the entire book. I tend to pick it up for the poetry, read a dozen pages and become too consumed by the description to stick with your search for a higher truth. Are you more settled about your place in America?
I’m not sure if I’ve finished the book, either. America unsettles me more and more each day. We’re still debating whether automatic weapons are good for our society. We deny science. We find every opportunity to exploit the poor for profit. I’ll spare any readers who are still with me at this point my usual anti-corporate/military rant. In terms of a personal truth? I’m finally reading William James and meditating instead of ranting on the internet, so that’s an encouraging development.