Some books to rev your get-up-and-go

Special to The Times

"Forget the Statue of Liberty, the road is America's preeminent symbol of freedom," Richard Grant writes in "American Nomads." And this time of year — with the prospect of freedom from work or school looming — the lure of the highway and the attraction of the unknown are irresistible.

The song of the open road plays loudly. It plays year-round for Grant's road-weathered nomads, but for the rest of us, this is the time to think about where we'd like to go.

Enter 40 cities with facts and figures to guide you R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. provides 40 answers in "Apple's America," his guide and paean to 40 U.S. and Canadian cities. (He omits New York because these pieces originally were prepared for the New York Times, which he has contributed to since 1963.) He begins each with a little amuse bouche of Apple-flavored insight: Atlanta is "a city without a historic core, a city in constant evolution — a Deep South version, you might say, of Los Angeles"; San Francisco "is the city Americans fantasize about."

Then he serves helpings of city history, assesses local government and the art scene, points out architectural standouts in the skyline and captures the civic mood. Finally, he shares tips on what clearly is his favorite part of travel: local dining. Indeed, his restaurant squibs reflect an involvement that one wishes pervaded the rest of each chapter. Although the essays are commendably comprehensive (but occasionally marred by cliché), there is less sense that he is "taking us along" than that he is merely "sending us there" — albeit well prepared. One craves more Apple in "Apple's America."

"Apple's America: The Discriminating Traveler's Guide to 40 Great Cities in the United States and Canada," R.W. Apple Jr.; North Point Press: 415 pp., $22.50. * Eight trips that take in towns small and large "Roadtripping USA" provides eight itineraries to inspire you. Some of the destinations are also Apple's, but these authors stop in small towns too. Often they take you off the interstates to the parallel, lonesome old roads that still have charms you'd hate to miss.

There's also a useful guide to pre-trip preparations and other helpful tips. Dig out your Willie Nelson CD, and get "on the road again."

"Roadtripping USA: The Complete Coast-to-Coast Guide to America," Let's Go; St. Martin's Press: 995 pp., $24.99. * On the road with those who live for the road Richard Grant's "American Nomads" are not mere summer vacationers but members of a culture unto itself. Bums and survivalists; alcoholics and stoners; pure of heart and dark of soul. They include the girl thumbing rides at the onramp, the kid dumpster-diving for dinner, the guy in the oncoming car hallucinating giant jackrabbits.

Grant's profiles alternate between historic nomads (mountain men, Comanche warriors and a marooned 16th century conquistador who roamed the American Southwest) and their modern counterparts (rodeo cowboys, freight car riders, sweet and sociopathic hitchhikers). Grant rides with them, eats and drinks with them, hears their stories, dodges their fists. They're people you may be sharing the road with.

"American Nomads: Travels With Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders," Richard Grant; Grove Press: 311 pp., $24. * Odd roadside attractions in the great state of Iowa Jerome Pohlen has made a career out of finding obscure roadside attractions. Following his "Oddball Minnesota," "Oddball Illinois," etc., here's "Oddball Iowa."

Iowa is home of the Roto-Rooter Hall of Fame (West Des Moines), the world's oldest Dairy Queen (Council Bluffs) and future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk (Riverside). See where "the music died" (Mason City, where Buddy Holly's plane crashed in 1959) or the town (also Mason City) that inspired "The Music Man," or where Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head off a live bat (a stadium in Des Moines). Iowa — who would have guessed?

"Oddball Iowa: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places," Jerome Pohlen; Chicago Review Press: 210 pp., $14.95. * A little inspiration to go at wayside religious sites You might think Timothy K. Beal's "Roadside Religion" would be a companion volume to "Oddball Iowa," but the religion professor from Case Western University rarely pokes fun. While he does scorn some wayside religious sites, mostly he takes them seriously, particularly the home-built ones with apocalyptic messages.

He sees meaning in Gospel-themed miniature golf courses. He admires the fervor of a western Maryland preacher with a divine call to re-create Noah's Ark on Interstate 68. Just as "outsider art" helps us understand mainstream art, Beal says, "outsider religion" helps illuminate "insider religion."

"Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith," Timothy K. Beal; Beacon Press: 216 pp., $24.95. * One tasty part of travel: sampling local cuisine Even if you don't brake for religion or kitsch, you do need to eat. Jane and Michael Stern have a new edition of their encyclopedic "Roadfood" to help you find something other than chain-marketed fast food. Here are 600 diners, pits and holes-in-the-wall where the prices are low and the Formica tabletops have never seen white linen. The Sterns favor local cuisines, including Michigan's pasties, Buffalo's beef-on-weck, fried oyster po' boys in New Orleans and barbecue, in all its glorious regional variations. They have eaten in each listed restaurant. Every reader will complain, of course, that his or her favorite has been overlooked. And they do slight the Western U.S. in favor of Chicago. But bless their ever-lovin' chicken-fried souls for the effort.

"Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 600 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, & Much, Much More," Jane and Michael Stern; Broadway Books: 555 pp., $18.95. * Taking it in slowly on the streets of N'awlins Or you could just ramble, as Roy Blount Jr. does in "Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans."

"New Orleans is my favorite place in the world to ramble," he says. "Even on those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting ham fat, New Orleans has always put a spring in my step."

The "feet" are mainly metaphorical. Each chapter is a separate "ramble" through some part of the city, usually one that well-meaning folks would tell you to stay out of.

He keeps his eyes open for details ("It can rain so hard in New Orleans that you expect to see alligators bouncing off the pavement") and juxtaposes bits of history. ("New Orleans was the first American city to build an opera house and the last to install a sewer system.")

"Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans," Roy Blount Jr.; Crown Journeys: 143 pp., $16. * It's the little roads and small spots that count Finally, a classic American road trip: In 1978 William Least Heat-Moon set out to explore the Blue Highways, the little, mostly two-lane roads marked in blue on oil company road maps.

Starting from his home in Missouri, he proceeded to coastal Carolina, then moved clockwise around the circumference of the Lower 48. Although occasionally given to grand pronouncements ("A person shows himself in the way he opens an orange"), he can portray a greasy cafe so accurately and sympathetically that you will put down the book with your hair smelling of bacon.

He gets lost and battered by storms ("A rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure — it's ridiculously easy to find."). He finds much that is prefab and fake, but, he also finds the authentic America, particularly in the people he meets.

Should fate contrive to keep you home all summer, a copy of "Blue Highways" on your nightstand will let you greet autumn with a sense that you've really been somewhere.

"Blue Highways, A Journey Into America," William Least Heat-Moon; Back Bay Books: 421 pp., $14.95.

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