Harry Truman liked to drive and once said, “I like roads. I like to move.” So it seemed natural that in the summer of 1953, after serving almost eight years as president (he had been vice president for only 82 days when FDR died), private citizen Truman would drive himself and his wife Bess from their Independence, Missouri, home to New York City and back. Public radio reporter Matthew Algeo retraces their route in Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.

During their nearly 2,500-mile roundtrip, the Trumans stayed almost exclusively in family-owned motels or with friends, ate in local restaurants and tried to travel incognito. Such a trip would be impossible today; at the time, former presidents did not have Secret Service protection. Though their itinerary was not made public and the president’s popularity was at an all-time low when he left office, well-wishers and reporters often appeared when the couple stopped, asking for photos or autographs.

Algeo interviewed people who met the Trumans and researched accounts of their travels in local newspapers and other sources. At times, he tells of his own experiences retracing their trip, noting, for example, that only one of the mom-and-pop businesses the Trumans are known to have patronized is still in business and owned by the same family. But Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure is more than a travelogue. Algeo adroitly gives us relevant background about Truman’s personal and public life, especially his presidency, and explains the trip within the context of the 1950s—roads were often in poor condition; cars did not have seat belts, air conditioning or air bags—and American history generally. Among many examples of the latter is the story of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

This very readable book takes us back to a country quite different in many ways from today. Readers will almost feel like they’re sitting in the back seat of that 1953 Chrysler, enjoying the trip.

Roger Bishop recently road tripped to New Mexico to visit his grandson.

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