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How We Traveled

By Michal Strutin
July 7, 2022

PEOPLE SAY “now that we have global markets…” We’ve always had global markets. People have been trading since prehistoric times, even earlier. What’s different in recent centuries is that people now travel for pleasure and adventure as well as business and finding ways toward a better life. Here’s a brief look at travel from the near-present to ancient times.



Even if you didn’t see Dinah Shore smack-kissing her hand to the audience at the end of her TV show, you probably remember the beginning of the song, “See the USA in your Chevrolet…” This was the 1950s, the beginning of the two-week vacation, families with cars fanning out on the roads of America. President Eisenhower brought us the interstate highway system that spiderwebs across the country as this succinct article from the National Archives tells.


Once my parents plugged into the American family vacation, they quickly discovered the national parks, “America’s best idea,” as author Wallace Stegner said. As editor of National Park Conservation Association’s magazine for a decade, I can say there’s no institution that tells the story of America better than the National Park System: from national parks such as Yellowstone (the first, in 1916), Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains to Chaco Culture, Martin Luther King, and other historical parks to national seashores such as Cape Cod and Point Reyes. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, by Ken Burns, is an excellent six-part documentary available via Prime.

Just out of college, two carloads of us headed from hometown Chicago to Los Angeles. What road did we take? Of course: Route 66, one of the most iconic roads in the country. The National Museum of American History tells the Route 66 story as does the National Park Service.


Saloon car on the Orient Express, 1895. (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)


Even before car-friendly roads, trains spanned America’s vast distances. The most famous route was the transcontinental meeting of two rail lines on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, now honored at Golden Spike National Historical Park, one of the park system’s historical train sites. Once national parks were established, train advertisements enticed visitors to the parks, boosting tourism to the parks and traffic for the trains.


The Transcontinental Railroad, stretching nearly 2,000 miles between Iowa and California, reduced travel time from about six months by wagon or 25 days by stagecoach to four days! Here’s a brief history of trains before the Transcontinental.


The most famous train is the Orient Express, connecting London with Istanbul. Adventure! Romance! Intrigue! And Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wikipedia offers history plus a good map. Other links:, brief but with panache plus links to related history, and Smithsonian magazine.


Wagon Trains

Before cars and trains there were wagon trains. Notes from the Frontier, a brief history with excellent photographs, says, “The first big wagon train—a military expedition of about 110 men with heavily-laden covered wagons, left Missouri in May 1832.” St. Louis was a starting point for this often-harrowing means of travel.

The National Park Service’s Wagons on the Emigrant Trails offers pictures and descriptions of the types of wagons plus links to NPS trail sites, such as the Oregon Trail.


Ute Pass, Pike’s Peak, Colorado, 1878.

River Travel

The Mississippi River was and is an important transportation route for all sorts of travel, much of it commercial. When I was writing History Hikes of the Smokies, I learned that settlers turned the corn that they grew into liquor because the profit was so much higher than dragging piles of corn over the mountains. Their corn liquor made it to the markets of New Orleans via the river. Mississippi Valley Traveler is one-stop info for America’s most important river corridor, with river history, music, towns, photos, and their choice of books, fiction and non-fiction, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn among them.



El Camino de Santiago

Pilgrimages are travel with a purpose, often by foot. Likely, the most famous pilgrimage is to Mecca, but you must be Muslim to participate. The famous pilgrimages are included in 13 “Unforgettable Pilgrimages from Trips to Discover: UK, Tibet, Peru, and Japan among them. And 10 “best pilgrimages for modern travellers include Mexico, India, and Italy. Both descriptive lists highlight El Camino de Santiago, arguably the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe, with a thousand-year-plus history.


Grand Tour

Beginning in the 17th century, it became fashionable for young British men to cap their education with a tour of Europe: typically, across France, over the Alps, and south to destinations in Italy. The Grand Tour was the first travel simply for “educated” pleasure. The Educated Traveller’s history of the Grand Tour includes full-color images of paintings from that period. The MetMuseum history includes a reading list.  


Hansom Cab, by Andrew Dunn


Horse-drawn carriages gained new and improved designs beginning in the 16th century. Their use soon spread throughout Europe, detailed in History World’s History Transport and Travel. HorsyHooves depicts types of horse-drawn carriages. Still, it took a while before “shock absorbers” were much more than wide leather bands. Ouch!   


Star of India, San Diego Maritime Museum

Age of Sail

Tall masts with billowing sails, a pointed prow, and elegant form: the Age of Sail dominated sea travel from the mid-15th century to the mid-19th century. Shipping routes ringed the Mediterranean and spread farther, east and west. I’m writing a historic mystery trilogy set in 1571, so I had to learn a lot about ships. One of my favorite places: The Pirate King. So much information on ship types, sailing knots, navigation tools, clothing, even movies, including an all-time favorite: Master & Commander. Another good source: Ships of Discovery with clear pictures of ship types and descriptions. Nothing beats the real thing: America’s Historic Tall Ships, more than a dozen historic tall ships that you can visit. I’ve visited the ones in California. Thrilling!


Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Credit: Alamy

Silk Road

The Silk Road conjures exotic landscapes and far-away places, camel caravans and the caravanserai where they stayed at night. Silk Road routes connected the East with the West. Marco Polo returned from China in the 13th century with the first Western record of porcelain, coal, gunpowder, and paper money. UNESCO provides history and detailed maps of both Silk Road and maritime routes between east and west. The New York Times article “Follow the Silk Road” offers succinct descriptions of excellent books and films on the Silk Road, as well as stunning images.



Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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