American Road Trip: On the Way to Something New

Road Trip by Emily Stokes//Flickr CC

Road Trip by Emily Stokes//Flickr CC

“Road Trip, Anyone?”

When I tell people I am going on a road trip this summer, I am amazed at their responses. Not since my teenage years have my friends so strongly encouraged me to flee all responsibility and go and do whatever I wanted. When I tell them that I am driving out west for ten days, they react as if I just explained the best way to prank the principal’s car. Their prefrontal cortex shuts down; their fingers start to twitch as visions of rebellion dance in their eyes. “Cool, cool, man. I’m happy for you,” they say as they shake their heads to clear the visions, bending over to pick up their two-year-old crawling toward the stairs.  And I, free from such suburban obligations, walk away from the conversation all the more resolute in my desire to go on this road trip. “I am doing this for each of you,” I think to myself. I have to do it for them. I am going on this trip to see what it is like to live out of that freedom for a while, a freedom that can question who I am, that can still wonder just how big is the world.

So long, suburbia.

* * *

“Everything flows,” Heraclitus declared — humans included. We find ourselves drawn and pulled like the tides. With the shift of seasons there comes the shift of human attention. Teenagers put away their books and pick up jobs lifeguarding at the pool. Aged snowbirds start flying in from winters in Florida and Arizona. The summer city-dwellers head up to cottage country — the eager Friday exodus of red taillights, snaking their way from the shimmering heat of the city to the cool wooded lakes of childhood memories. Summer is a time for sports camps and barbecues, but mostly it is a time for vacation.

But let’s be clear about one thing: road trips are not vacation. Road trips are about complete freedom, the ability to go left or right, free from “limits and imaginary lines,” as Walt Whitman declares in his “Song of the Open Road.” Vacation, on the other hand, is a lesser freedom, one tinged with responsibility. It is a domesticated freedom that must vacuum the winterized cottage at the beginning and recycle the empties at season’s end. But road trip freedom — the freedom you find when civilization ends and the wilderness begins — that’s a different kind of freedom altogether. It is the freedom of the unexpected side-trip, the road less taken. It is the freedom of fast-food when you want it and the freedom to listen to a whole CD all the way through. It is the freedom of sleeping in the back seat and waking to birdsong and sun filtering through the pine branches.

* * *

The road trip is a powerful genre in film, music, and literature, and it is every bit as American a genre as jazz or cowboy movies. They’re as predictable as action hero movies, but we’re never tired of watching a good road trip flick unfold. No one watches a road trip movie and fails to understand that this is going to be a story of self-discovery. Every road trip is a romance of sorts; the tale of two bodies meeting for the first time: the identity of a sprawling nation entwining with the identity of the traveler. John Steinbeck’s road memoir Travels with Charley begins, “I did not know my own country.”  For me, the America waiting to be discovered in the campgrounds, diners, and Walmart parking lots of the west is not the America I have known before I set out.

Road trips — and their European cousin, the backpacking trip — are the last great socially acceptable way of fleeing all responsibility to learn about yourself. Unlike telling someone you are considering a ‘life coach,’ telling someone you are going on a road trip is pretty much universally regarded positively… unless, of course, that person is your boss, who wants you working so she can go on vacation… or your parents, who want you working so you can finally move out of their house.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cswtwo/3164490843

Road Map by cswtwo // Flickr CC user

Road trips reveal the ache in all of us to be on the way to something new. We start out for many different reasons. At the cynical worst, we are only running away from someplace, a restless ennui that struggles in vain to find a refuge along the road. But seen in a different light, road trips stir in us a longing to be somewhere better…to be someone better. To see if we can’t find a place that teaches us about ourselves, a place where it is easier to be good.

Whatever reason we may have when we begin, it is only once we are on the road that we decipher the real reason we were impelled to set out in the first place. “Americans… are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier,” says Claire Minton, a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Maybe that is the great insight: whether travelling to a destination or fleeing from one, what drives us is the search for love. The car may be the means to get us there, but it takes road trip freedom — not the ersatz ‘freedom’ of well-planned vacations — to lead us to this insight. In freedom stripped of all pretense, road weary and unshowered, we can be free to see who we really are, and what we really want for ourselves and this world.

* * *

Some people would argue that American imperialism and exploitation has its source in our desire to push back the frontier. There certainly is some truth to that insight, but it seems that what drove those early explorers, and what drives road trip warriors of today, is something much more human: a yearning to make sense of it all. To name a location is to order the world; but it is also to find one’s place in it. In an age of aimlessness when relationships seem awkward and the future looks hazy, to know a place is to anchor oneself to a stable point in the world, a stance that makes truth-telling finally seem possible. Contrary to Vonnegut’s Claire Minton, it is precisely at the end of the frontier that love is found. Love is rooted in time and space — or rather, at a time and place — a horizon that beckons us forth from the stale hues of the familiar to a world that will soon be our new home.

“The road is life,” declared that legendary rover, Jack Kerouac. I’ve started packing my bags and soon I’ll be hopping in the car, free from all responsibility, free to see if somewhere along the road I can’t find my place in this world of love.

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