The romance of the open road endures as a hallmark of American culture. The central figure of that theme—typically lone, white, and male—is being made over in several forthcoming titles. With proper planning and a sense of adventure, these books say, anyone can follow her (or his) bliss onto whichever route beckons.
In She Explores (Chronicle, Mar.), Gale Straub compiles the experiences of 40 women who’ve embraced a life of adventure. “Going back to [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road, these stories have always been told from a male perspective,” says Rachel Hiles, food and lifestyle editor at Chronicle. “We’re asking, ‘What’s the female experience?’ It’s a mother who’s on the road, or a woman with a disability on the road.”
Some hike with infants strapped to their backs. One lives in a vintage military truck converted to accommodate herself, her baby, and her three dogs. Another woman, Teresa Baker, advocates for outdoor companies to be more inclusive in who they portray as their market. “People of color are in these spaces,” Baker writes in the book. “But you would never know that by their absence in outdoor magazines and the social media feeds of outdoor retailers.”
The book, named for the website Straub launched in 2014, incorporates lessons she gleaned from her time on the road and first-person inspirational tales—a list of camp kitchen essentials in one case, and advice on picking the right place to bed down for the night in another. “This can seem inaccessible to a lot of people,” Hiles says. “It looks beautiful, but disconnected from the way people live. We wanted to show them: here’s how you do it.”
Similarly, Vanlife Diaries (Ten Speed, Apr.), by three of the cofounders of the website of the same name, shows aspiring nomads how to downsize so that they can live in an old VW bus, for instance, or a converted Sprinter van. Through explanatory text and more than 200 photos, the book offers guidance on practical concerns such as how to outfit a rolling kitchen or take care of personal hygiene on the road, as well as aesthetic matters including how to artfully customize such a compact space. Coauthor Kathleen Morton lives with her dog in a 1987 Toyota van traveling primarily around the U.S. West, and Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose each live in vans on Australia’s east coast.
Of course, not everyone is seeking a full-time mobile lifestyle. The Best Coast (Sasquatch, Apr.), Chandler O’Leary’s illustrated road trip atlas spanning San Diego, Calif., and Washington State, taps into a desire among vacationers to see America as it was before chain restaurants and frequent-flyer mileage homogenized and shrunk the landscape. “Americana is exotic now,” says Hannah Elnan, senior editor at Sasquatch.
In The Best Coast, O’Leary follows the original state highways that connected towns before the establishment of the federal Interstate Highway System, which bypassed them. In the 1920s and again after WWII, she writes, personal automobile ownership soared and small towns jostled to entice motorists, kicking off an era that is now referred to as the golden age of the road trip. Eye-catching neon signs broadcast upcoming stops with novelty architecture and other roadside attractions, and O’Leary celebrates the contemporary appeal of these vintage attractions without glossing over their histories.
“These golden years,” O’Leary writes, “existed only for white travelers.” The refusal of many establishments to serve black or non-Christian motorists, she explains, prompted the publication of several road trip guides for marginalized communities, such as The Negro Motorist Green Book.
Even as O’Leary acknowledges the American road trip’s complicated past, she’s confident in its future. After logging well over 100,000 miles and visiting all lower 48 states, she writes, “I still feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface.”