Go west, young soul… and write a book

Cheryl Strayed killed time at a casino near a Reno bus station at 4am; Jack Kerouac went down the mountain between Las Cruces, New Mexico and Benson, Arizona, “with the clutch in and the motor off to save gas”; Bill Bryson drove through Virginia’s gumdrop hills, with a sky “full of those big fluffy clouds you always see in nautical paintings”, and found towns called Snowflake, Horse Pasture and Charity.

These are just a handful of the more than 1 500 locations charted in a comprehensive, interactive map of American literature’s most iconic journeys, created by self-declared “freak for the American road trip” Richard Kreitner, in collaboration with developer Steven Melendez and hosted online by Atlas Obscura.

“We’re at a time where so many Americans will go to see southeast Asia before Kentucky or Arkansas. That’s a real shame,” says Kreitner. He’s charted every location mentioned in 12 books after travelling around the country and “obsessively reading” many of the classics. He then spent the last year reading and rereading on the subway, manually compiling each of the entries.

To be included, a book needed to have “a narrative arc matching the chronological and geographical arc of the trip it chronicles. It needed to be nonfictional or, as in the case of On the Road, at least told in the first person”. The process, which Kreitner describes as “quixotic”, was a lengthy one, but it “wasn’t so difficult with a beer and a record on”, he says.

The project maps something slightly more subtle, too. Kreitner finds special resonance in locations about which different authors have written at different times. He likes the three descriptions of Crater Lake in Oregon, where Cheryl Strayed, William Least Heat-Moon and Robert Pirsig “address the contrast between the site’s sacredness to Native Americans and its status as just another tourist site to most Americans … You can ruminate about what those differences say about American travel, American writing, American history”.

The cross-country trip is still, he argues, quintessentially American. His visual representation of this cultural phenomenon also evokes a sense of freedom. Until the frontier closed in the 19th century, “[the road trip] was like a safety valve for American cities”, says Kreitner. “If anyone was restless, they’d just hit the road. ‘Go West, young man,’ was a classic phrase. That’s still true – even though there’s no technical frontier anymore, you can still pretend there is – that’s what wanderlust is.”

The books plotted are: Wild by Cheryl Strayed; F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Cruise of the Rolling Junk; Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover; A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins; Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90 000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark by Robert Sullivan; The Lost Continent: Travels in small-town America by Bill Bryson; Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon; On the Road by Jack Kerouac; Roughing It by Mark Twain; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig; Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck; and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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