Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip – Book Review
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure
by Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press
I’ve just read this book for the third time. The first time I read it was for the history and nostalgia (I had just read Truman, by David McCullough and wanted more Truman). The second time for road trip inspiration. This time, for pure escape. This book is ten years old now (it holds up well) and has never let me down. Every time I read it I feel better for just spending time with it. I love it.
“I like to take trips, any kind of trip. They are about the only recreation I have besides reading.” – Harry Truman
I can relate, Mr. President.
Harry and Bess Truman took their extended road trip in the summer of 1953 in a new Chrysler New Yorker, less than six months after his presidency. The destination was Philadelphia, where Harry was scheduled to give a speech, via New York City where they would visit their daughter, Margaret. Algeo lets us know right away, that Harry Truman left the Presidency mere months before this trip without a pension or Secret Service protection. They did the trip without either one. At the time, Truman’s only income was a $111/month military pension. (Truman was the last President to go without either a pension or Secret Service protection)
This book is the story of Harry and Bess Truman’s first road trip after his presidency. Author Matthew Algeo set out to write the story of the Truman’s road trip by taking the same trip himself. His passion for his subject is infectious. I get lost on the highways he describes and in the stories he tells. He has a gift not only for exploring and devouring the sites that intrigue along the way, but for being able to describe it all so well that you feel like you’re right there, right now with Harry and Bess. When Algeo made his trip, he made a point of eating at the same restaurants and staying at the same hotels and motels (when they were still there). From the Motel Parkview in Decatur, Illinois to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, Algeo succeeds at making an identical trip to the Truman’s.
You’re getting two road trips here, for the price of one.
Both trips start and end on U.S. Highway 24 out of Independence, Missouri, where the Trumans lived. As a bit of a highway nerd, I loved that Algeo chronicled every highway they (and he) traveled on. From U.S. 24 to 36 to 40 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and more….
I was excited to read that many of these places were still around as of 2009 when the book was published. Some weren’t, and some had been repurposed. Like the Motel Parkview in Decatur, Illinois. This was the first motel Harry and Bess had ever stayed in. Algeo tried to stay in the motel when he took his trip, but found it had been turned into a work-release prison. (In 2013, it was to be turned into a homeless shelter). Stories like this one and from cultural history, roadside history, political history and of course, Truman history fill up the book. There’s quite a few surprises in these stories too – one involves UFOs.
In 1953, The New York Times said of the trip, “It is … as it should be that an American ex-president, accompanied only by his wife, with no retinue and no ceremony, can drive his own car around the country and no one think it unusual. It cheers one up, somehow.”
I’ll continue to read about their excellent adventure again and again.