Book review: “Miles to Go: An African Family in Search of America Along Route 66”

Brennen Matthews’ detailed travelogue, “Miles to Go: An African Family in Search of America Along Route 66” (Amazon link), explains the spark that led him to found and edit ROUTE Magazine.

Because his multiracial family has roots in Kenya or Canada, the 280-page book published by University of New Mexico Press also provides a glimpse of how non-Americans view the United States, its customs and its hang-ups. (Disclosure: Matthews and his ROUTE Magazine are advertisers in Route 66 News.)

Brennen and his wife Kate met in college in their native Kenya, married, had a precocious boy Thembi and moved to Toronto in 2015.

The prologue explains how Brennen, having not been in the United States in 15 years despite his founding of Destination Magazine, was surfing the internet for the best pathway to California when he stumbled onto Route 66-related websites.

That led to them taking the traditional Chicago-to-Los Angeles path “In Search of Americana,” as one of the book’s portions is titled.

On the road, Matthews and his family make these observations as outsiders:

  • They were startled in mid-Missouri by poverty where “parts of the country, such as this one, had been left behind.”
  • Route 66 draws a lot of older travelers, which doesn’t portend well for its future. “It would do the Mother Road good to have some fresh blood,” Matthews muses.
  • Matthews enjoyed the diversity of the U.S. “Driving through the different states is like visiting a collection of micro-countries, each with its own identity and personality,” he writes.
  • The family wasn’t used to the enormous portions at restaurants, especially compared to where they live and grew up. Matthews also doesn’t eat beef, which made his ordering of meals more of a challenge, especially in the West.
  • Residents of Route 66 often are indifferent or oblivious to it. “The people closest to the old road are the ones that least feel a romantic connection to it.”
  • Matthew grew suspicious of some guidebooks that recommended certain restaurants due to their atmosphere. After a disappointing experience at an unnamed eatery in Holbrook, Arizona, he wrote he “no longer trusted recommendations that romanticized a venue simply based on its history and location on the Mother Road.”

The book’s best moments occur with random and not-so-random encounters — the chatty Vietnam veteran at the Dixie Truckers Home in McLean, Illinois; “religious fanatics” outside the Dairy King in Commerce, Oklahoma (Matthews is a Christian); a conversation with (now former) Blue Swallow Motel co-owner Kevin Mueller; and the great chat with a pedicab driver in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Matthews often quotes the people in these encounters liberally and with detail in his book. He either has a phenomenal memory or takes copious notes.

Because Matthews is White, Kate is Black and their son is biracial, America’s race issue does come up a few times in the book.

While reading about the segregation-era Negro Motorist Green Book, Brennen and Kate note while traveling in Illinois the meager amount of representation of Black motorists in Route 66 literature or history. He writes:

Since the end of the colonial period, race in Africa has never really been a big issue — outside of South Africa and Zimbabwe, that is. In Africa, tribalism often plays a much uglier role in prejudice and discrimination. But being a minority in Kenya, I can certainly appreciate the reality of being made to feel different and an outsider; however, I never was barred from going where I wanted. Traveling across Route 66, my black wife, my mixed-race child, and I had experienced nothing but kindness thus far, but it was sobering to realize that reception may have been quite different fifty years ago.

During a chat with travelers at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri, he talks with a woman distressed — probably after learning about the nearby Trail of Tears — by America’s long mistreatment of Native Americans. Brennen tells her:

“That really is a tragedy, for sure. … But, honestly, we love America. Americans are intrinsically hopeful. No matter how many times they get knocked down, they keep getting up. You have an amazing country filled with tenacious people and unlimited opportunities. People aren’t perfect, but anything is possible here. That really does make America unique.”

The Matthews family comes away from its journey with a new appreciation for America and “an endangered way of life” that is Route 66. That lit the fuse of the founding of his magazine, which is approaching its fifth year in publication.

“Miles to Go” contains several dozen images by renowned Route 66 photographer David Schwartz. The forward was written by “Route 66: The Mother Road” author Michael Wallis, who states the book “has been needed for a long time.”


2 thoughts on “Book review: “Miles to Go: An African Family in Search of America Along Route 66”

  1. I was struck by the comment: “Matthews enjoyed the diversity of the U.S. ‘Driving through the different states is like visiting a collection of micro-countries, each with its own identity and personality,’ he writes.” This statement corroborates an excellent study (which I have recommended regularly to my students) by Joel Garreau, The Nine Nations of North America (Avon, 1982), in which the author avers that North America can be divided into nine nations, which have distinctive economic and cultural features. He also argues that conventional national and state borders are largely artificial and irrelevant, and that his “nations” provide a more accurate way of understanding the true nature of North American society. Having lived in five of these nine “nations,” I have found Garreau’s presentation and rationale to be quite accurate.

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