Jamie Jensen: on the road
An interview by Jen Kopf,
September 1996

When Jamie Jensen gets to yearning for a little trip to Samoa, Florence, Oxford, Shamrock or Athens, he goes the way most tourists don't go.

No passport needed. Just his list of necessities: "Lots of good maps. About 10,000 travel guides. A gallon of water. And a full tank of gas. That's always good." A real big touring car, "maybe a 1930s Cord that gets about two miles to the gallon," would be great. But it's not necessary.

But what makes a really good trip, according to the California-based author, is a two-lane highway.

Jensen penned Road Trip USA: Cross Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways, released by Moon Publications. After a lifetime of driving around, Jensen has turned his love of the byways into a book that takes a serious -- but slightly skewed -- look at the small towns, bizarre roadside attractions and history that punctuate America's landscape.

When he agreed in 1996 to do a 28-day, 28-city book-signing tour that had him covering nearly 7,000 miles, he admitted that, even for him, the pace was "a little insane." He's more used to meandering, "floating around on my own, where nobody knows me. It's kind of like being a secret agent."

That's allowed him to poke around on US-93 from Montana to Mexico. He's traced US-83 from North Dakota to Texas: The Road to Nowhere. He's curved with the Mississippi River, taken the ups and downs of the Appalachian Trail, followed The Great Northern, Route 2, from Washington to Maine.

And then, there's Route 66: The Mother Road.

Jensen's organized 11 trips by route, and then followed them state by state. He tells you where to find Babe the Blue Ox (Brainerd, Minn.), the world's largest jackalope (Douglas, Wyo.) and an 8,000-pound prairie dog. (And you thought this couldn't exist. It does. In Oakley, Kan.)

"My weird site of the moment is Carhenge," he says. Old cars stand on end in a Nebraska field to resemble the ancient circle of stones in England. "I went there for the solstice last summer," he adds. "I was expecting some Druids, but it was just me. Kind of disappointing."

As he's wandered professionally for a decade, Jensen's developed some definite theories on good trips, good roads.

When you see small towns from Minot, N.D. ("There are worse aesthetic experiences on the Great Plains.") to Tillamook, Ore. (Motto: "cheese, trees and ocean breeze."), you get a real sense of not only the variety, but the similarity, in Americans' lives. "You realize there are all these parallel universes," Jensen says.

And there's a beauty that tugs on the heartstrings, sometimes melancholy, sometimes "oddly sentimental," that springs up in the most unexpected places.

In a telephone interview from the Busiest Roads in America (the streets of New York City), Jensen says "The Loneliest Road" in Nevada (US-50) is one of his favorite drives.

"It's uninhabited, wild. You have to appreciate what an area does have, rather than look at what it doesn't. ... I like to find things that people used to consider interesting, but that they don't anymore. Now these places get bypassed or abandoned because they're not 'stylish.' They don't have a golf course or something."

Jensen's book gives gentle gibes where they're deserved. But even those are balanced by his affection for old road maps and motoring photos taken by New Deal-era documentary projects.

"A lot of the historical plaques are faded," Jensen says, "but they still have something to say."

That doesn't mean every road is worth driving.

"Indiana on the interstate is pretty dull," he says. "And I haven't been able to bond with Iowa, I'll admit. I was there recently, and it was awful: Gray, humid, 95 degrees."

He needs a road where something pops up around the bends.

"I sit in the car for an hour at most; that's why nobody travels with me anymore, even my wife. I go crazy, just swerve off the road, stop at every historical marker."

Even with those frequent stops, he spends long hours behind the wheel. Jensen's solution is "country music. As loud as possible. Sometimes I'll even play along on my harmonica."

He's recently passed through Pennsylvania Dutch Country, trying to get some pictures at the giant roadside shoe along Route 30 in York County. That gave him a chance to stop at one of his favorite eateries: Jennie's Diner, just east of Route 896 on Route 30.

"They have a nice bowl of chili," says Jensen. "That's my big diner test: chili and a cup of coffee. And they have to be open 24 hours, I think."

But he has little nice to say about the commercial sprawl along much of the Route 30 strip through Lancaster County, the heart of Amish Country. "What's that big steamship hotel thing?" he asks. "What's with that? It's become like Las Vegas out there."

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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