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On the Road (again): How America Monopolised Road Tripping

The popular mythology of the American road trip has gripped the mind of many a literary genius and budding adventurer alike. But why is road tripping seemingly so wound up in the American psyche, and why has it become such an enduring image of the country? 

Should you have never touched a book by Steinbeck or Kerouac or have known any better than to believe that Thelma and Louise were a domesticated plant species, there’s still a fat chance that in your head the image of road tripping is already as in-and-out American as a Philly Cheesesteak.

The urge – or even the need to hit the road has been ingrained in every other literary or cinematic work, be it Nabokov’s Lolita, some Vegas-style bachelor-party flick or Lana Del Ray waving the Old Glory in a remote desert landscape before riding off into the sunset in her music video.

It’s hard not to fall victim to the open road once you’ve made to the New World – the petrol is cheap, the destinations are innumerable. Yet it’s rather interesting to find out that, in fact, most Americans are far from being the pioneers of motorised journeys (Karl Benz’s wife beat them to it by 15 years or more) that popular mythology makes them out to be.

So what makes this type of journeying, wrapped up and merchandised as vital component of the American dream, truly theirs? Let’s take a look at some of the beliefs and values that have actually sent this nation out On The Road.

Driving Identity

Whether or not we agree with Aldous Huxley’s gloomy vision of Henry Ford becoming a messianic figure to his dystopian society, few of us would doubt the fact that Americans are, indeed, a driving nation; if anything, then mainly due to Ford’s progress in making the once-luxurious carriages affordable to masses. While this industrial advancement has certainly made the nation a constant target of mockery for driving down two blocks to the shop for toiletries, this strange attachment to a car may speak less of a genuine love and more of an arranged marriage.

Los Angeles was on the agenda of my very first American road trip and one of the first labels that I struggled to wrap my European head around was that it’s a city where no one walks. While it’s an obvious exaggeration (take Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer), taking a few tortuously long bus journeys through this ridiculously spread out American city (which the U.S. has no lack of) makes you realise why owning a motorised vehicle is a must when moving to the Pacific Southwest, – and quite a few other parts of the US with cities and facilities designed exclusively for drivers.

The same applies to most of the national landmarks as very few of the famous U.S. national parks provide reasonably priced and easy access via public transit, making driving the only convenient way of sightseeing. Americans tend to regard their parks as a certain manifestation of democracy, where, as the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof puts it: “the poorest citizen gets resplendent views that even a billionaire is not allowed to buy.” However, no one seems to question the ability of the poorest to drive themselves there, unofficially stating the nation’s inseparableness from a car.  “The driver’s license is our identity,” writes essayist Paul Theroux and he probably couldn’t be more right about it.

Road Tripping - Robert Couse-Baker

Is the popular mythology of American road tripping really such a cultural foundation?

image by: Robert Couse-Baker

No Borders, One Nation

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that ownership of a car speaks of a certain society’s dependency on goods. Just like any other vehicle, the car is also a key symbol of the freedom which in the States is embodied by the fact that there are no guarded borders or annoyingly expensive fuel that could prevent you from crossing over three time zones once you’ve hit the road.

So it’s of little or no surprise that even one of the much-idolized travelling ascetics and materialism-defiers like Chris McCandless (of Into The Wild fame) set off to his travels in his beloved Datsun B-210 and might have made it all the way to the Stampede trail, had it not been caught into flash floods in Arizona. The roads of the U.S. possess a certain beauty of their own, long and wide as they are, holding a promise of far-away and yet so reachable destinations.

Mobility is yet another thing that seems to be written in American blood, often clichéd by Hollywood films drawing parallels between settling down in your hometown (unless it is New York, Philadelphia or LA for that matter) and giving up on life. Yet, if we are to believe Forbes, about 40 million Americans move around the U.S. every year and, according to their interactive map, some go as far as cross-country.

While migration is not uncommon for other nations too, living in the third biggest country in the world certainly hints on some road tripping, extremely convenient for one of the greatest highway systems in the world, bringing us to the next point.

Road Tripping - Authors own picture

Endless vistas and a near infinite amount of possible destinations

Image by: Author

The Mother Road

It may be considered a massive flaw in my knowledge but being a relative virgin in the great road tripping world, I hope one could actually forgive me for not being aware that Route 66 has been closed…for the last 27 years or so. I also tend to believe that with all the hype around it and store displays breaking under the weight of its memorabilia, I might not be the only one unaware of the fact that “the Mother Road”, as famously labelled by John Steinbeck, is no longer in operation. But not before passing its legacy on to the new Interstate Highway System.

One of the original U.S. motorways, Route 66 was officially established as early as 1926, welcoming migrants to the West; an attractive destination for economic migrants to whom moving out to the West promised better jobs (and weather) than in the industrial east and also for the free-spirited, yearning for absolute freedom and “escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations,” as put by Wallace Stegner.

However, U.S. motorways weren’t reserved to national migrants only. Even if tourists could not care less about the upward social mobility Route 66 might have embodied, the suggested liberating experiences together with a slice of Americana in the shape of rusty petrol stations, cheap diners, neon hotel signs is still intriguing enough for visitors from European countries, Australia and others. Not to mention the vast variety of landscapes one could travel through in just a matter of days instead of months.

The introduction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s which saw Route 66’s closure has been much debated and certainly isn’t much favoured by the owners of the once-flourishing businesses along the route. That said, in many cases the new interstate motorways not only parallel but even incorporate much of the previous road to the point where Interstate 40 is lovingly referred to as “old Route 66 with a face-lift” in the previously quoted Paul Theroux’s essay.

Road Tripping - Worak

American road trips are still a popular tourist attraction

Image by: Worak

The Teacher and the Leader

Mobile lifestyle also calls for adaptiveness and being keen supporters of homeschooling (the figures approaching 2 million in 2010) , more and more American families have taken it to the next level – roadschooling, believing that nothing like the open road can teach their kids and themselves about culture, nature and history, while endorsing sense of ownership, pride and belonging. While it doesn’t exactly speak of traditional lifestyle and values and is vastly opposed by the educationally-conformist Europeans, there’s no need to assume that all home-schooled children are absolute out of space aliens. Kings of Leon might not be the best example of intellectual excellence, however their mother’s efforts teaching her kids while driving an Oldsmobile through the Southern U.S. doesn’t seem to have prevented them from becoming one of the greatest rock bands of this day and age.

What do you believe one can learn from an open road? Share your thoughts!

Featured image by: Grant Loy 

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