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Cross-Country Paperback – December 2, 2013
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About the Author
M.M. Justus spent most of her childhood summers in the back seat of a car, traveling with her parents to almost every national park west of the Mississippi and a great many places in between, as well as to Alaska back when the only road to get there from the lower 48 was 1200 miles of gravel and 300 miles of frost heaves.
She holds degrees in British and American literature and history and library science, and a certificate in museum studies. In her other life, she works as an independent museum curator, and finds museums a great source of adventures of all kinds.
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Among the remarkable things about this book is its ordinariness. And when I say that, I mean that what Justus did is extraordinary, but that she made it seem ordinary. in 1999, she left her home in Tacoma, Washington, by herself, and drove cross-country in a Chevy Cavalier named Owl (a "he," by the way), and traveled around three months and through about 30 states in the continental US, taking notes and making observations all the way.
Then, probably the most extraordinary part, she wrote a lucid account of it all and published it herself, without making the trip or herself into a bigger deal than it was.
As such, Cross Country distances itself from such recent travel memoirs as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Wild, by the serendipitously-named Cheryl Strayed. These two authors parlay personal and psychological crises into self-generating money machines.
M.M. Justus simply writes about her life.
Not to take anything away from the significance of these authors transformational journeys-- the reading public loves a story with an arc, after all.
But there's something refreshing about an epic cross-country drive (and it is epic) where the author returns home richer (in experiences), wiser, but without a new life and/or a new man.
Having never been to Yellowstone National Park, for example, I revelled in the attention given to geysers and the park library and archive. In fact, the first part of the journey, from Washington south-south-east to Minnesota, helped me to visualize a part of the country I know only from maps.
The central section about the East Coast engaged me less; I am much more familiar with these states, and her impatience with things like traffic jams in Great Smoky Mountains National Park made me impatient, too.
Then Justus turns west and returns to the left coast by way of places like New Orleans and her family home, Bastrop, Louisiana, where her relatives live on Justus Road.
And wait for it, but there's a fun (for the reader) bang at the end.
Here's the thing: if you are up for a three-month drive with a well-spoken, educated, adventurous, and yet eminently sensible travel companion, Cross Country is for you.
Call it See, Drive, Live.
The author felt the need to go on a solo adventure in a big way. She quit her job, gave up her apartment, fostered her cats, put her things in storage, bought a car, and started reading maps and listening to cassette tapes out on the open road. The trip took about three months. “Meg” explored many states, many natural outcroppings, both famous and obscure, plus more pedestrian tourist destinations. Her guide books took her to out-of-the-way eateries, and they are duly reviewed. The author noted weather patterns, appropriate clothing, things that delighted her, things that scared her, and and includes her email communications to loved ones along the way.
I found that I couldn’t read straight through this account. The dizzying speed of reading quickly through a three-month journey sometimes seemed repetitive. I had to stop and digest. But the author’s style is breezy, she thoroughly enjoyed her adventure, and her humor is not overbearing. Justus peppered her account with stories from her early years, letting us get to know her on a more personal basis.
The trip ended abruptly when her beloved car, named Owl, was totaled in a horrific accident that nearly killed the author. A photo of the smushed Cavalier in the auto impound is included, and it’s not pretty.
As road trip diaries go, I think this is a good one. I am happy to recommend it.
I too have read William Lest Heat Moon's Blue Highways and Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent. This book dwells less on mental angst than those, though it is not upbeat throughout, but realistic.