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.

‘Dirty Dancing’ Hotel In Ruins

When the Housemans put Baby in a corner, at least it was a sanitary and safe space. Now the corners at Kellerman’s aren’t even fit for a lowlife like Robbie Gould. Grossinger’s Catskills Resort, a once-bucolic family playground in New York said to have inspired the setting in “Dirty Dancing,” sits in a state of crumbled, rotted emptiness, according to the Daily Mail (via Abandoned NYC).

The wholesome summer vacation depicted in the movie, one of privileged families learning the fox trot together and dressing up for dinner, was ancient history by the film’s 1987 premiere, yet Grossinger’s didn’t close until the year before, according to Abandoned NYC. Since then, the property has been left to decay. Where vacationers used to have the time of their lives, debris covers the floor, mattresses lie bare and wallpaper slumps to the ground. But there are also signs of its former beauty, such as Mondrian wall tiles remaining in the salon.

“Dirty Dancing” was filmed at a different mountain lodge, but reportedly a summer at Grossinger’s inspired the story. Will Ellis of Abandoned NYC, who took the photos used by the Daily Mail, wrote last year that the resort had another claim to fame besides its connection to Baby and Johnny: it was the first place to use artificial snow, in 1952.

A few commenters on the Daily Mail photo gallery call the story fake because some of the images also appeared in the paper’s photo gallery of Creedmoor State Hospital, a former mental hospital in Brooklyn. Abandoned NYC provided the Creedmoor photos, too, and Ellis confirmed that the Grossinger’s photos are authentic. It appears as though the paper mistakenly labeled some of the resort photos as the psychiatric center. The explanation makes sense, as Ellis points out: “It’s the first I’ve heard of a luxury spa and swimming pool in a state-run mental institution!” Here’s hoping the Creedmoor patients at least got to meet a hot dance instructor every now and then.

#OnTheRoad: Gadling Instagram From Lake Michigan

Come on in, the water’s well, it’s freezing. (Seriously, the girl in this photo is nuts.) But that isn’t keeping me away from my first trip to the breathtaking shores of Lake Michigan, also known as the country’s Third Coast. Though I’ve lived in Indiana most of my life, I have always passed over Lake Michigan for the spun-sugar shores of Florida’s Gulf Coast and Mexico’s Caribbean for my beach fix. I’m just not a lake person; I’m a beach snob. But the first time I laid eyes on Lake Michigan’s stunning panorama this week, I changed my tune. The sand is fine and soft, the beaches long and unbroken, the water deep blue and stretched to the horizon. There’s even a crashing surf, like the ocean. Charming beach towns and state parks galore run up and down this unsung, uncommercialized coastline, and the sunsets are spectacular. Follow along on Gadling’s Instagram account, @GadlingTravel and #ontheroad, as I discover the best of Lake Michigan’s beach culture this week. By the time you can plan a trip for later this summer, the water will be warm. Well, warmer, at least.

Souvenir Of The Week: Llama-Humor Tees In Bolivia

Llamas are the pack animal of the Andes Mountains in South America, and you could use one to carry home all of the llama-related goodies you’ll want to buy in Bolivia. Gadling’s Laurel Miller surveyed the options while traveling through the country recently. Somewhere on the taste scale between conventional llama-hair blankets and freaky llama-covered purses shaped like people are T-shirts that use every possible pun on the word “llama.” The animal with a cell above the phrase “Llamame” (Spanish for “call me”) is my favorite, but if you’re in the market for something cheekier, a fully illustrated “Llamasutra” design might interest you. Don’t forget about the “Llamaha” motorcycle tees, either. There has to be a Kanye West “Llama let you finish” shirt somewhere in those mountains. You might not need an actual llama to take your favorite souvenir home, but you will need uncreased U.S. dollar bills. It’s a Bolivia thing.

Saddle Up And Bike Under The Stars In These Cities This Summer

Somewhere in Chicago there’s a personal tiki bar on wheels. I’m not talking about the rental “cycle pubs” popular in cities and hipster burgs. This is a five-top cocktail table under a thatched roof, hitched to a bicycle. It passed me around midnight on the streets of Chicago’s South Loop a few years ago. Everyone at the “bar” took a turn on the bike while the rest of the pack chilled on tall stools, nursing longnecks.

These spectacles are part of the reason I love Chicago’s L.A.T.E. Ride. The 25th annual event starts around midnight on June 30 this year from downtown’s Grant Park, and it’s not restricted to extreme thrill-seekers or serious cyclists. Around 8,000 bike riders of all levels (honestly, all levels – I’m living proof) show up to pedal through the city en masse. Most people come on a regular bike and wear everyday workout clothes, but the freaks and weirdos can’t resist the big audience and the slightly nuts wee-hours concept. Thank goodness. It wouldn’t be any fun without them.

Late-night bike rides haven’t caught on like mud runs, but that’s a good thing. Rather than corporate-branded productions with dates in 45 cities, they’re organized locally and reflect the community. Such rides tend to fall into one of two categories: the nonprofit annual fundraiser on a closed course (meaning police block traffic on most streets along the route), and the unofficial weekly or monthly group ride alongside cars, organized by the area biking community. The first type will carry an entry fee, but there’s more support and festivities, and the route appeals to out-of-towners. The second type will probably be free and might have grown into an established, well-attended ride promising safety in numbers, though the starting point and route might not be as visitor-friendly. Either way, they tend to be well organized, somewhat of a workout but not too much and very safe.

Logistically, out-of-towners only have to worry about getting a bike to a ride that starts around bedtime and finishes around closing time. Most events don’t offer bike rental. You either have to drive to the event with your own bike, fly with one or rent one on your own once you arrive (and most bike rentals are priced for an hour or half-day of sightseeing, not overnight keepage). For the trouble, you get to ride in mild after-dark temperatures, see part of a city from an unusual perspective and do something kind of nutty. Spectators sit in bars and front yards along the route and cheer you on. Riders are hyped up on Red Bull to stay awake and inexplicably wearing Halloween costumes. Plus: free glow-in-the-dark T-shirts!

Here’s where you can saddle up this summer:

London and Paris: The Nightrider isn’t for beginners. The 100-kilometer (62-mile) ride takes six to eight hours to complete, starting at 10:30 p.m. But it’s probably one of the world’s most scenic workouts, passing nearly every major landmark in the city aglow against the starry sky. The Nightrider is organized by a producer of “worldwide charity adventures” called Classic Tours, and participants can raise money to offset some of the entry fee. June 8 for London and Sept. 21 for Paris, £39 and up

Indianapolis: The N.I.T.E. Ride fundraiser for the regional biking association is nearly as established as Chicago’s and covers 20 flat miles through the heart of the city, passing monolithic war memorials bathed in golden light. It attracts about 2,000 people. Before the 11 p.m. start time (early enough for a 1 a.m. finish), you can warm up on the city’s brand-new urban bike path, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. June 22, $31

Denver: No bike? The Moonlight Classic is the only organized ride where you can rent wheels on site. Around 4,500 riders hit the 10-mile closed course, and unlike other events, they can choose a starting time. Join the Gonzo Wave for the 11:30 p.m. departure and you’ll have some fired-up company (see video). June 27, $40

Chicago: The L.A.T.E. Ride is a 25-mile flat route from downtown’s Grant Park through Chinatown, the Greek neighborhood and northside residential areas. It links to the city’s excellent Lakeshore Trail and runs right along Lake Michigan for 7 miles back to Grant Park. Problem is, that usually happens around 2, 3 or 4 a.m., and everything’s just pitch-black. You can’t even tell you’re near water. Still, this fundraiser for Chicago’s Friends of the Park Foundation draws an insanely large and entertaining crowd. Someone always dresses like the Blues Brothers. June 30, $45

St. Louis: The Moonlight Ramble got an auspicious start 50 years ago, when only one person showed up for the inaugural event in 1964. Now thousands attend and choose from a short closed route of 10.5 miles and a longer one of 18.5 miles. The route changes every year, but the timing coordinated to August’s full moon doesn’t. Everyone is done by 3 a.m. Aug. 17, $25

Los Angeles: In 2004, a group of counter-culture bikers called the Midnight Ridazz stopped partying long enough to put together a late-night ride open to anyone. Then they started hitting the streets the second Friday of every month, joined by about 1,000 others. The organizers have stepped down and the community they created has taken over, announcing loosely coordinated rides on the website. The Ridazz aren’t as menacing as the name suggests. They follow a set of “Rulezz” to keep the rides safe and organized. Ongoing, free

San Jose: The grassroots San Jose Bike Party covers between 15 and 30 miles the third Friday of every month, from around 8 p.m. to midnight. Though the course is not closed and the event doesn’t offer the live music and support vans like larger ones do, it’s still attended by 2,000 to 4,000 people and led by experienced volunteers. Ongoing, free

Paris: Several tour companies offer a nighttime excursion, taking in the big sights. To cruise with a pack of locals instead, rent one of the Velib bikes stationed around the city and join Rando Velo. Just show up at City Hall a little before 10 p.m. any Friday night. The leisurely route goes through the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 11th and 12th arrondissements, ending just after midnight. Ongoing, free