Summertime means travel—family travel, solo journeys, finding lost places. Two new books take on these concepts in distinctive ways.
In Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, Richard Ratay uses his memories of family trips as a portal back to what he calls the golden age of car travel: the 1970s, when he would sit crammed in the family car’s back seat between his two brothers, his sister up front between their parents. Ratay’s dad had some eccentric ideas about saving time and money on their long car trips, and Ratay recounts these anecdotes with relish.
Ratay also takes a comprehensive look at the family road trip, starting with the patchy history of American roads and the changes wrought by the interstate system. He gives us the backstory on entrepreneurs like Howard Johnson, who grew one drugstore into a national chain of restaurants and motels, and Bill Stuckey, whose stores once blanketed the South. And he delves into smaller but memorable details of ’70s-era car trips: the CB radio craze, eight-track tape players, AAA’s TripTik guides and low-tech video games.
Don’t Make Me Pull Over! is a love letter to the ’70s and all its weirdness, and if Ratay sometimes goes a little overboard on travel-related puns, that’s OK—he just so enjoys his subject. His enthusiasm shows in this entertaining, funny book.
Northland takes a quieter journey, detailing author Porter Fox’s treks along the border between the United States and Canada, the world’s longest international border. “On a map the boundary is a line,” Fox writes. “On land, it passes through impossible places—ravines, cliff bands, bogs, waterfalls, rocky summits, whitewater—that few people ever see.” Fox begins his journey near Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, where he puts in for a solo canoe trip up the St. Croix River, following the path of explorer Samuel de Champlain.
Fox’s journey has five legs. In Montreal, he boards a freighter bound for the Great Lakes; in Minnesota, he canoes the Boundary Waters with an older married couple; in North Dakota, he visits the pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; in Montana, he follows the border to Glacier National Park; and finally he makes his way to the Peace Arch Border Crossing, which connects Washington and Canada.
The narrative moves fluidly between Fox’s own travels and larger stories of the border, mixing history, travel writing and nature writing. Fox shows how the northern border is intimately bound up with our nation’s history, particularly in the shifting relationships between European settlers and Native Americans and the violent and sad history of the United States’ treatment of indigenous people. But he also gives nuanced profiles of intrepid French explorers Champlain and Robert de La Salle, who learned from and fought alongside Native Americans.
Most memorably, Northland offers vivid, lyrical writing about the strange and beautiful places along the United States’ northern border.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.