The proverbial ‘road trip’ has cemented its place in the American literary canon as the driving (excuse the pun) force behind some of the most celebrated literature of our time. Hearing the word ‘road trip’ today may conjure images of teens on an open-road adventure jostling for the AUX cord and navigating with a less-than-cooperative Apple maps while P plates fly off the bumper. Others still will imagine enormous paper maps fluttering in the wind of rolled down windows and the click of a tape into the cassette player to blast Talking Heads.
Although many road trips are dreamt up and executed (whether successfully or not), those content to forego the long drives and leg cramps and use their imagination can look no further than the abundance of literature associated with the quintessential American road trip. Of course, this is not to say other countries don’t have their fair share of fine road trip literature; however as one writer mentioned in an article, ‘the only thing more American than taking a road trip is writing about one’. Whether it be by car, bike, train or foot, in no other country is the ‘road trip’ more celebrated in modern literature than the US of A, the home of iconic Route 66, which celebrated its 90th birthday in 2016. Readers are spoilt for choice, trekking alongside Cheryl Strayed on her journey along the Pacific Coast Trail in 1995 in ‘Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Coast trail’, or being put in the seat right next to the likes of John Steinbeck as he traverses the country in 1960 in a custom camper named ‘Riconante’ with his poodle in ‘Travels with Charley’. Go back even further and you’ll find yourself on a rattling stagecoach journey west, gold-prospecting with Mark Twain in the 1860s in his semi-autobiographical work ‘Roughing it’.
Where the undulating landscapes halted by constant vehicle breakdowns provide the skeleton of the road trip novel, it is undoubtedly the protagonist’s – whoever they may be – moments of deep introspection and profound connections with the people from all walks of life they encounter that make up its beating heart. For the Beat generation, the apparent failure of idealizing the American dream in the 1960s gave inspiration to Jack Kerouac in his seminal work, ‘On the road’, which he wrote in a mere 3 weeks on a continuous ream of tracing paper, capturing the stream-of-consciousness style that characterized the literary movement.
Most road trip novels in the annals today are works of fiction (‘Paper Towns’ by John Green); some are a mixture of the author’s own road trip with fiction weaved throughout (think ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ by Hunter S. Thompson); and few more are truthful accounts of an individual’s trip, down to the nitty gritty (John Krakauer’s account of Christopher McCandless’ ultimately doomed foray across the western United States). That a genre of literature can encapsulate such a broad range of writers and writing styles has contributed to its status as an almost revered form of literature, encapsulating all of the journey’s we as humans are taking, making them a prized addition to any bookshelf. Ruminate American culture with Simone de Beauvoir on her coast to coast trip in 1947 in ‘American day by day’, or get deeply philosophical with Robert Pirsig with ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ in 1974. The list is ongoing, and you are sure to have made an emotional road trip and come out the other side weary yet wiser…maybe.
Explore this amazing interactive map below by clicking the image, and get a feel for some of the most famous American road trips and how they intersect and diverge: