The subtitle for Robert Sullivan's travelogue Cross Country reads: Fifteen Years And 90,000 Miles On The Roads And Interstates Of America With Lewis And Clark, A Lot Of Bad Motels, A Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-In-Law, Two Kids, And Enough Coffee To Kill An Elephant. The words fill the front cover, alerting readers that the pages within will contain a rambling, digressive travelogue, written lightly and with a personal touch. Sullivan, the author of the bestselling New York vermin study Rats, here looks at how Americans have taken to the road, from the days of covered wagons to the days of SUVs. While he pauses to consider the history of interstates, or the bitter disputes between Lewis and Clark re-enactors, Sullivan also looks at how a long car trip breaks down into the stops we have to make, and the stops we wish we had time to make.
Sullivan organizes the book around a recent cross-country trip of his own, and Cross Country's one major flaw is the way it often feels as claustrophobic as the air inside a hot car. Every time Sullivan writes about how tired his family is of hearing him talk about Lewis and Clark, it makes his obsession all the harder to take, and every time he complains about how he's getting on the road too late and not making enough time, it makes it all the more frustrating when he impulsively decides to, say, stop and play nine holes of golf.
But whenever he isn't actively trying to annoy his readers, he has a lot to say about the common and uncommon experiences of long-distance motorists. Cross Country is especially fascinating when Sullivan describes the early days of driving, when Americans headed west to camp under the stars and touch Indians, while social engineers (and actual engineers) worked to design highways and parkways that would both speed commerce and enhance the quality of life. The interstates—and the roadside economy that sprung up around them—stand as a testament to their quintessentially American ingenuity and vision. Our roads remain an open invitation for citizens to find the level of tackiness or grandeur with which they're most comfortable.