This year I am taking at least one road trip. The first is in the planning stages: agree dates, book ferry, consider route, juggle loose itinerary, and channel my inner Jack Kerouac: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” There is something about hitting the road, pointing the car and just driving where the spirit takes you, that represents liberation, escape, flight. Not least when the destination is uncertain. Culturally, most of my road trip notions are tethered to America. Take Simon and Garfunkel’s one word title song, ‘America’, and what’s it about? A road trip, of course. “Cathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh / Michigan seems like a dream to me now / It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw / I’ve gone to look for America.”
I love the idea of wide-open highways stretching for miles, and going on an inner-search for something indefinable. Meet a truck here, a truck there: desert, mountain, one horse town, window down, cheap motel. Parts of it are like that, for sure, as I learned last summer when I drove through Big Sky Country, where I found the scale of the landscape frighteningly vast. Too huge. That’s when I could finally understand Kerouac’s writing, because now I could answer his question in ‘On The Road’: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
America planted the road trip in our consciousness and in our dreams as far back as 1936 with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert hopscotching across states in ‘It Happened One Night.’ Ejected off a greyhound bus, they take to hitching a ride, unsuccessfully, until Colbert (shockingly for the time) hikes up her skirt and shakes her shapely leg. Screeching brakes, a car grinds to a halt. I wonder if that technique would speed one’s journey from Florida to New York City these days? ‘It Happened One Night’ speaks to the romance of the road trip. The chance encounters, the unexpected turns, the liaisons cut short as you blow on through like tumbleweed. This conundrum of meeting, then falling, then leaving appealed to Kerouac’s rolling stone nature as he described, “a pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
How about ‘Thelma and Louise’ or ‘Sideways’? The former, two women road trip buddies turned fugitive; the latter, two men attempting to sow their aged wild oats on a road trip through the wine region of California before one of them gets married. In both films the road trip is the ultimate act of defiance and escape. Not that I’ll be modelling my road trip on Thelma and Louise, I plan to return.
Although not in the road trip genre, the film Ladybird has a scene where the main character, a 17 year-old schoolgirl in transition from high school to university, drives across a nondescript bridge, looking out onto an unremarkable creek, somewhere in Northern California. At this moment she feels like a horse without a bridle, she is loosed, and filled with possibility. I like this scene because I’ve been her; because some of my happiest, most expansive, indefinable, soaring moments have been those spent driving alone in my car, care-less. Environmental scourge it might be, but the car is an inescapable symbol of freedom and opportunity, and, when it is denied to women in certain countries it is a dangerous means of control, suppression, disempowerment and wing clipping.
As for the second road trip I shall be taking this year: well, that one I don’t plan to go on alone. It might be more winding laneways and dry stonewalls than wide-open highways and the Grand Canyon, but it will be no less of a road trip for it. Hello, I’m speaking to two of you out there, you know who you are – when are we going?