Since I was a child, I've logged thousands of miles on road trips across America. Whether headed to Washington, D.C. , with my mom, Iowa City  with fellow math nerds, or San Francisco  with my husband, Dan, I've always appreciated the chance to hit the open road, where curious people, parks, attractions, landmarks, events, and oddities await – and unexpected experiences are almost always guaranteed. While the American landscape has evolved over the years – and on-the-road technology has greatly transformed the art of traveling – road-tripping is still one of my favorite pastimes.
So, imagine my excitement at snagging a copy of the newly published sixth edition of Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways  ($29.99). Covering more than 35,000 miles, this comprehensive, user-friendly guidebook features more than 125 detailed driving maps, a slew of full-color photos and illustrations (including vintage postcards), a flexible network of color-coded routes, and, naturally, mile-by-mile highlights that celebrate the best of Americana, from Port Townsend, Washington , to Key West, Florida . All told, you'll find 11 distinct road trips, including the Pacific Coast , the Great River Road , the Appalachian Trail , Route 66 , and other all-American routes, all of which intersect one another at various points, creating an endless array of possible route combinations.
To celebrate the upcoming release of this one-of-a-kind resource, the book's longtime author, Jamie Jensen , will soon be contributing informative guest posts to The Moon Water Cooler blog , so keep on the lookout for his first-hand travel advice and destination suggestions. Jamie is, after all, one of the best road-tripping experts that America has to offer. According to his bio, he “grew up in Southern California, back when freeways were new, cheeseburgers cost a quarter, and every beach had a beachfront amusement park.” After roaming around the country for several years, he returned to California, where he earned an architecture degree from U.C. Berkeley, then moved to England for a time. In 1990, more than two decades ago, Jamie began researching and writing the first Road Trip USA and has since logged “more than 400,000 miles in search of the perfect stretch of two-lane blacktop” in America. When not traveling, Jamie resides in Northern California with his wife, Catherine, and twin boys, Tom and Alex, though they'll soon be making a drastic, cross-country relocation to New York City.
In the meantime, Jamie has been hard at work promoting his recently updated guide, though he was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about his journey thus far. Here's the first part of that conversation:
American Nomad: So, how did you get started road-tripping?
Jamie Jensen: Being an L.A. boy, spending endless hours in cars is second nature to me, so road-tripping has always been a fact of my existence – in my DNA, as they say. Besides liking the sense of motion and progress you get from driving around, as I grew up, I noticed I was developing a deep fondness for the “car culture” artifacts you used to find all around Los Angeles  – drive–ins, wonderful animated signs, and buildings shaped like hot dogs or doughnuts (or Brown Derby hats!).
As a kid, my favorite road trip destination was probably an ice cream stand or a roller coaster – little ones like the old Beverlyland, or great big ones along the beach like at The Pike or Pacific Ocean Park. Now I have to travel a bit farther to find these things, but they still motivate me to get out on the road.
By the time I got my driver’s license, I was going to college in Northern California, and I started taking road trips home for Thanksgiving and other holidays, which let me sample the variety of highways: the I-5 freeway if I was in a hurry, winding U.S. 101 along El Camino Real  to enjoy the drive, or coastal Highway 1 thru Big Sur  if I just wanted to get away for a few days. All these various trips made me appreciate that travel was more than just about getting from A to B, and heightened my sense that every road had its own personality and character.
But I really got my taste for travel in my late teens, when I set out on a summer vacation tour around the U.S.A. I didn’t “finish” the trip for around three years, as I worked and played all over the country, helping out farmers, making up numbers for softball teams in middle-of-nowhere places, and getting to know all sorts of people all over the place, from Kansas  to Cape Cod .
AN: What have you learned about America from being a road-tripper?
JJ: One thing you learn from taking a long-distance road trip is that America is a huge and magnificent place – the sense of scale of the Great Plains , or the Rocky Mountains , will take your breath away. I had never been an exceptional student in school, but when I went to places I’d heard about in English classes or history classes – places like Gettysburg battlefield , or the Wright Brothers monument  at Kitty Hawk – or to walk along the Pony Express route  or parts of the Oregon Trail , the significance of what happened there, the bravery and determination and sense of invention and adventure, it all really hit home.
After growing up in fairly anodyne, disconnected California suburbia, I was enthralled by traveling to places that had been around since way before 1950, which is ancient by SoCal standards. On my trip, I started out wanting to see big sights and national parks, but when I was out there, I realized that I was also attracted by the liveliness and sense of community in places I’d never heard of, so I ended up traveling in places where they don’t see many outsiders, which was fantastic. I still love getting to know new places, which is why I love to take road trips – stopping in a new town for an hour or two gives you a great sense of the lives that get lived there.
So, looking back, I can see that taking road trips has taught me all sorts of good stuff – and I’ve also developed a real appreciation for the different regional cultures and lifestyles you find in different parts of the U.S.A. People in Montana sometimes seem like they inhabit a different planet from Californians, or Georgians. Having all these differences is good – the diversity of accents, politics, menu choices, landscapes, whatever, it all makes for some great trips.
AN: How have things changed since you began researching the book six editions ago?
JJ: When I think of what travel-planning was like way back in 1995, when Road Trip USA first came out, I’m amazed I ever took on this huge project. The early editions feel like a century ago, and when I think back to my first road trips (in the 1980s), it’s all sepia-colored. I used to spend hours in libraries, looking at phone books and ancient New Deal WPA travel guides, to try to get a sense of what these roads were like.
Changes for the good more than balance out the changes for the worse. Yes, for sure gas prices are much higher, there seems to be more traffic and more decaying roads and bridges, and definitely more sprawl – I’ve had to watch as many of my favorite drive-in movies and strawberry patches have been paved over for McMansions, and so much of our coastlines have been converted into vacation homes and golf courses.
But, on the upside, the Internet and all its spin-offs have made it so much easier to find out about events, cool cafés, etc., all over the country. In the “old days,” I really loved the serendipity of travel, but it was annoying to arrive in a place one day after a big festival or parade.
Now, you can find out from a distance what’s going on, and when, but even though information is abundant, I’m interested to see that “word of mouth” is still the main driver of what’s “cool,” even in the electronic age. Because we can check in on our smartphones to see if places are open, look at pictures on Panoramio  or Google Maps Street View , call from our cars to double-check directions, stay on the right routes, thanks to GPS satellites, and so on, road-tripping is a much more safe and secure activity – which has to be a good thing.
If you'd like to learn more about Jamie's road-tripping experiences, stay tuned for the second half of this interview, which will be posted on the American Nomad blog  tomorrow. In the meantime, be sure to enter Moon's current road trip giveaway  – after all, you might just win one of three helpful gift cards and soon be planning your own cross-country adventure. Good luck – and happy travels!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Laura Martone is Moon’s American Nomad  and the author of Moon Michigan , Moon Florida Keys , Moon Baja RV Camping , and the upcoming Moon New Orleans , which will be published in September 2012.