They say jazz is the most uniquely American art form. I say it’s the road trip. Take a look at the novels, movies, short stories, songs, photographs and poetry that all came from the act of jumping in the car, pointing it out of town and crossing this massive country. We’ve got a history of how road trips have influenced American culture since the turn of the 20th Century.
The History: The First American Road Trips
People crossed the country before physician Horatio Nelson Jackson, of course, but nobody did it in a car. Documented exquisitely in the Ken Burns film Horatio’s Drive, Jackson set off from San Francisco, California on May 23, 1903 in a Winton — named “the Vermont” — esteemed by his traveling mechanic Sewall Crocker as the most durable vehicle available at the time.
Jackson, Crocker and Bud would drive the Winton for two whole months, eventually making New York City on July 26, 1903. In 1944, Jackson donated his car (as well as his scrapbook of newspaper clippings and Bud’s goggles) to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
The Lincoln Highway would open in 1923, offering Americans a ribbon of asphalt from sea-to-shining-sea
The Literature: Listen to the Motor
It might not be the first road trip novel, but it might be the most indelible: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the great American Exodus from the Dust Bowl to the promise of California’s verdant farms. Steinbeck captured the drive:
Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of our hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses, for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean – a week here?
The road is a critical theme in half of the American Lit you were supposed to read in high school. Last week, author Richard Kreitner and illustrator Steve Melendez partnered on the “Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips”, which provides GPS coordinates for every stop and route in some of the best American road literature ever written.
Kerouak’s On the Road, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Higways, and John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley are ruminations on America through the lens of a windshield. Even Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great American road trip, though the emphasis is on “trip.”
The Music: If You Ever Plan To Motor West
Road trips tunes are as American as road trip novels, and sometimes they run in parallel. “Lost Highway” might have been cut by Hank Williams a decade after the publication of the Grapes of Wrath, but you can picture Tom Joad singing that song himself as he rumbled across the southwest with all of his belongings tied to the roof.
Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway,” Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66,” Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” and half of Bruce Springsteen’s back catalog all take place on America’s highways.
The Movies: That Ain’t Never Been Done Before, Not In No Rig
Even when you leave out the film adaptations of great American novels, the movies that take place on the road make up some of the most memorable films ever created.
At the moment when Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were hitting their stride with I Love Lucy, the team paired for 1954’s The Long, Long Trailer, a comedy about a civil engineer and his wife who take a year-long trip across America in a travel trailer. The eight-and-a-half minute scene of their climb through the 20 miles of twisting, turning mountain roads in the Sierra Nevada mountains should be required comedy viewing:
The road movies of the 1960s and early 1970s took a turn for the existential, with classics like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point:
But road movies are natural comedies It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run all hinge on the craziness of the road, and the loose nuts behind the wheel of the cars.
Then there’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, the movie that thrust the Wagon Queen Family Truckster (in glorious Metallic Pea) into America’s consciousness.
The Griswold’s road trips are a franchise, with a fourth movie and a rebooted cast including Ed Helms and Christina Applegate hitting theaters today.
Times have changed. What we watched and read and listened to, and how we did all that has changed with them, but piling in the car and driving across the country is as alive as it ever was.