Hayley Juhl’s book Blacktop: Driving Across America is an instance of landscape meeting the literary imagination.
The slim volume chronicles two major road trips through the U.S. with Juhl’s small family. Fellow travelers include spouse Melani, teenage son Trevor “a veteran road-tripper”, and little Jilly, “a good natured baby” whose metamorphosis into thoughtful toddler is glimpsed through the sometimes stunning photographs that illustrate the book.
This is not exactly a travelogue for the Punta Cana all-inclusive type tourist. After all, how many of us have desperately wanted to see Texas or always wanted to see Portland.
For me, until now “Portland” was a street in N.D.G. around the corner from my house.
The destinations Juhl describes, such as a highway in Kansas, belie their mystery at first, as do the photographs of, say, a road-sign in the desert. But the sign says “Eureka”– there really is a place called that. And does “Buford” really have a population of one? So you begin to read and the adventure begins.
Juhl’s prose makes for easy, delightful reading. The tone is friendly and light, as if you are sitting next to her in the front seat of her trusted buddy Joe the Truck, to which the book is partially dedicated. There is a gentle but steady undercurrent of hilarity throughout, revealing as much about what is described as about the observer’s view of the world.
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Consider this sage advice from Juhl, the seasoned traveler who not only wants to share what she has seen but also inspire the reader to embrace life on the road: “You need to learn each other’s travel rhythms… and need to understand that there will come a time when you’re snipping at each other and that time might lead to all-out yelling at each other in the car, where the acoustics are great.”
This brings me to the best part, the actual content of the book. I can only liken it to sitting on a bus surrounded by strangers who, magically one by one, become individuals revealing their stories, dramas and destinies. Under Juhl’s gaze, the landscape begins to speak, introducing a cast of characters, be they human, animal, vegetable or mineral, who suddenly mean something to you. To call this social history would be too dreary a description, but it is learning nonetheless, as story upon story unfolds through Juhl’s narrative.
I, too, would love to see “big-sky country” and American Beach in Florida, where Juhl noticed the houses were modest: “a few were barely more than shacks overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches on the Atlantic.” This community, Juhl recounts, was established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire. “From the beach, you can see where the plantation house sat. American, you see, was a black-only vacation resort, a central gathering place for families and church functions. Such celebrities as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles performed at Evans’ Rendezvous nightclub and no doubt walked along this shore which is now a registered historic site.” Ironically, once the beach was desegregated in 1964, there was very little traffic. “Strangely-or perhaps not because cultural biases take a long time to fade – no one flooded into American and it remains unspoiled. Less traveled.”
Juhl’s ongoing travels, complete with photos and videos, can be discovered on lifesatrip.ca, where the stories are available. Several have appeared in this newspaper. But she wrote the book, she says, because she believes in print. “You love the look and feel and smell of pages in your hand and you know that a book is forever.”