Romantic travel

There’s nothing more American than a road trip story

a photo of the open road

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There are few things as quintessentially American as an old-fashioned road trip. But that’s what happens when your country doesn’t have a strong rail system: when it’s vacation time, your family hits the road. It was, after all, John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley who noted that “Every American craves movement.” There’s something romantic about hitting the road, a journey that’s both physical and emotional. What is good with a roadtrip compared to any other type of trip is that you don’t always know what will happen along the way. Kind of like the journey of life, right?

It’s no surprise, then, that road trips play an important role in American literature. An open road is a ridiculously obvious metaphor for a hero on a journey of self-discovery. They make various stops along the way, where their view of the world is challenged, and they become more confident in reaching their endpoint. Of course, the road is not always clear and is filled with detours and stops.

The advantage of living in such a large country is that Americans can do just about anything without showing their passports. Ski? You have the likes of Vail and Salt Lake City. Camping? Choose from national parks. (I’m partial to Yosemite and Sequoia.) Mountains? Choose a range. (I love the Rockies.) There are even cities that will make you think you’re in other parts of the world, like Solvang in California. Such a country is a rich source of information for writers.

The cover of The Watsons Go to Birmingham

One of the first road trip books I read was for my 7th grade English class: The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. In the story, Kenneth and his family travel from Flint, Michigan to (you guessed it) Birmingham, Alabama. Even after all these years, I still remember reading a passage about how Kenneth’s mother meticulously planned the trip, noting safe places for his family to stop and rest. 1960s America was dangerous for a black family, so the prospect of a road trip wasn’t very romantic or even adventurous — there wasn’t much room for spontaneity. As a reader, I was able to follow how the North to South road trip depicted Kenneth maturing and understanding more of the unjust world around him. Moving from his hometown where he felt safe in his community to Jim Crow South was a cruel reality check. That said, The Watsons go to Birmingham was also a beautiful family story, and how sometimes you have to travel far from home to appreciate them.

Around the same time, I read a very different children’s book with a road trip: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. The story is a satire of how the children of the Greek gods functioned as modern-day heroes. Riordan took the classic epics, in which heroes venture into the unknown and battle monsters, and turned it into an American road trip. As a child, it was fascinating to watch ancient Greek monsters interact with classic American settings, such as The Gateway Arch and Las Vegas Strip. Journeys, or road trips, in the epics of ancient Greece were marked by trials that proved the hero’s abilities to the gods and extolled their virtues to the masses. In The Lightning Thief, it felt as if the monsters represented the obstacles that every young teenager had to overcome, whether it was an adult who refused to believe you or one who pretended to be your friend. As a child, it was quite impossible to identify with The Odysseybut The Lightning Thief It was one of the first times I’d seen kids my age (at least when I was reading the book) go on adventures to places that I could also physically visit… minus The Furies, of course.

Lincoln Freeway Coverage

And who doesn’t want to embark on an epic quest? While Homer’s world may not be a reality for readers, our current world, with all its cobblestone roads and roadside oddities, is. Some road trips are epic in their lack of a final destination. And then there are the road trips that get lost, forcing you to go where you didn’t want to. I recently finished The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, a story about two brothers who want to find their mother who lives on the west coast. But thanks to two friends who intervene, they find themselves in New York. Like any good road trip book, they stumble upon a cast of characters reminiscent of Greek heroes. In fact, one such character, literally named Odysseus, saves one of the main characters from a thieving pastor. Emotionally, I could see how this trip is a metaphor for how even the most meticulous planning will lead you in the opposite direction. Sometimes the universe and its open road don’t really care about your plans or goals.

Readers always like to be taken on a trip. And while road trips are literal, there’s a reason they’re so prevalent in literature. What better way to show an adventure while indicating its implications?

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