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Book Review – Highway 61: A Father and Son Journey Through the Middle of America

Highway 61: A Father and Son Journey Through the Middle of America
by William McKeen
Copyright, 2003
W.W. Norton and Company, New York
256 Pages
ISBN: 978-0393041644


“We picked Highway 61 because of His Grand Exalted Mystic Bobness [Bob Dylan] and Highway 61 Revisited [Dylan’s sixth studio album]. We picked it because of the blues. We picked it because it goes places Graham has never seen.” – author, William McKeen, p. 13.

Highway 61: A Father and Son Journey Through the Middle of America is so much more than a travelogue of a road trip. It’s a fantastic memoir where Highway 61 is the stage it all takes place on. And Bob Dylan is a bit of a tour guide. It’s an examination of a father-son relationship, their love of music and the culture they’re exposed to along Highway 61. William and Graham McKeen covered every inch of Highway 61 on this road trip, from Thunder Bay, Ontario (where 61 officially starts, in Canada, it’s since been truncated to Wyoming, Minnesota) to New Orleans. The writing is smart, funny, engaging and thoughtful. Even though I have taken route 61 from Grand Portage, Minnesota to New Orleans (the American leg), I’ve never driven the entire thing in one trip like this. McKeen made sure I felt every mile of it here though. The fantastic music, it’s history, the food, the characters they met along the way…….the writing made me feel it all…..and in the the end, when the weary travelers pulled in to New Orleans, I felt the road fatigue too. And I mean that in a good way. The writing is that good.

No, this isn’t a travel guide, but the stories from these places do more for my desire to visit them than Trip Advisor could ever do. The book is written in chronological order of the trip, from Indiana where McKeen picked up his son at his mother’s house, to Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie where they drove around the top of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay. From there, he takes the reader on an adventure through Bob Dylan’s hometown of Duluth (and Hibbing, MN) on down through the blues meccas of Memphis and the Delta to New Orleans. The smaller towns, like Dickeyville, Wisconsin and Hannibal, Missouri are here too.

“People got too impatient for roads like this. On the interstate, it’s like you’re looking at a painting. Here, you’re in the painting. – William McKeen, p. 156.”

Bingo! And he writes the book as if he were patiently creating that painting.

In a more recent essay called Serendipity that Mr. McKeen wrote for the New York Times College section, he says (about our technologically-centered lives):

 “Time is saved, but quality is lost….you lose the adventure of discovery, of finding something for yourself.”

This is the exact reason I love taking the old roads.

This is William McKeen’s second book. He’s written nine to date. At the time this book was written in 2001-2002, Mr. McKeen was teaching a class about the history of Rock n’ Roll at the University of Florida. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in History, a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Indiana and an P.H.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Oklahoma. In addition to Florida, he’s also taught at Western Kentucky University and the University of Oklahoma. Today, he chairs the Department of Journalism at Boston University. Bottom line, he’s one helluva writer.

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