Unlikely duo Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, travel across the country to get in touch with real Americans in America, You Sexy Bitch, out now. Though McCain is not her father’s Republican — she’s an advocate for marriage equality and outspoken against abstinence education — she and the comedian still make for odd road trip buddies: He’s a married, 40-year-old atheist Democrat, and she’s a 27-year-old Christian blogger who loves the GOP. They also smoke weed together in New Orleans, so there’s that, too.
But Black and McCain aren’t the first authors to trek out into the heart of America. They join a list of writers who’ve completed cross-country quests to discover the country’s history, its politics, its citizens, and plenty of oddball trivia.
Rich Benjamin, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America
When Black and McCain touch down in Texas, Black is the first to admit he’s not among his kind of people. But where Black finds himself on a “Republican freak fest,” author Rich Benjamin traveled 26,909 miles to live among a different group of people totally unlike him: white people. In Searching For Whitopia, Benjamin spends two years in Georgia, Idaho, and Utah living in “whitopias,” towns whose residents are largely white, to learn why these communities are forming and the implications for the country.
William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America
Black and McCain touch down in some well-known spots during their cross-country tour: Vegas, Nashville, the nation’s capital. There’s just one spot McCain hadn’t heard of before the trip: the small city of Branson, Miss. In Blue Highways: A Journey into America, William Least Heat-Moon skips out on those American metropolises and ends up in locations even more unknown than Branson. As his life starts to fall apart, Least Heat-Moon embarks alone (except for a spider on his car’s dashboard) on a trip that takes him to a whole host of small towns with peculiar names — like Remote, Ore.
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Least Heat-Moon wasn’t the only author stopping through towns off the beaten path. Bryson, a Des Moines, Iowa native who moved to England, tries to catch up on America and revisit the glorious monotony of his childhood car trip days in The Lost Continent. His mission to find the ideal American small town brings him back to his homeland, but his observations aren’t free of outsider sass: “Outside town there is a big sign that says, WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE. There isn’t really. I just made that up. But the place does get a grip on you.”
Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein, Girldrive
Aronowitz and Bernstein wanted to know how women across the country felt about feminism, so they got right to it in 2007. Curious about where their generation was headed, the two friends since childhood road-tripped across the nation and profiled 127 women from a future nun to riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hannah, from women who identify as feminists to women who steer clear of the word. Not just a book and the name of a companion blog, Girldrive is also visual journey, too — Bernstein, a photographer who died in 2008, documented their travels and the women they met.
Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Vowell’s contribution to the list of books about cross-country American journeys is a morbid one. The voice of Violet from The Incredibles guides readers through museums, monuments and even a religious commune as she researches presidential assassinations and the killers behind them. Vowell’s book is full of historical fun facts — like the curse of Robert Lincoln, who was present at three presidential assassinations — as well as the humor she’s known for: “When I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.”
Rose Aguilar, Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland
Black and McCain begin their adventure hoping to find common ground between near-opposite ends of the political spectrum. San Francisco radio host Rose Aguilar did the same in 2008 when she spent six months venturing into Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Montana prior to the last presidential election. While she examined the issues on the minds of voters, along the way she found Red State voters who defy conservative stereotypes just like McCain does, including pro-Choice Republicans and unexpected gay rights advocates.