Vast and wide-open spaces, and empty landscapes, followed by endless roads peppered with a few motor vehicles will be sights that profoundly mark a new era of travelling. One characterised by solitude, road trips and new ways of interacting the with space around us. As COVID-19 has radically uprooted the ways in which we interact with others and the environment around us, as many as 4 in 10 Americans1 have turned to road trips as a way to escape the monotony of months of quarantine. With gas prices at a historical low, road travel provides a cheap, safe and accessible alternative to a summer vacation.
Road travel in pop culture
The symbolic power of road travel has most notably been ingrained in the narratives of American popular culture through literature, music, cinema and poetry. The road trip has been a backdrop for the meditations of Jack Keruac in the beat classic On the Road, the feminist road movie Thelma and Louise, and Chuck Berry’s eponymous song ‘route 66’ – to name a few. The metaphor of the road is an old one. It is simply embedded within our rhetoric, giving way to expressions such as: a fork of the road, twists and turns and the road to success. In other words, the metaphors are as vast as the journeys taken through them. These visions of an experiential road trip tell stories of characters mediating a life in flux, escaping rigid societal expectations, and the search for alternative ways of living. From Nabokov to Keruac, the road has provided the right backdrop for exploring themes ranging from poverty, identity, sexuality, jazz music, and counterculture movements.
There are certainly a multitude of reasons someone might want to partake in a road trip. Parents may gravitate towards road trips to create memorable vacations with children. For other young adults and single individuals, a road trip may provide much needed moments of contemplation and a chance to bond and re-connect with other likeminded individuals. After months of lockdown, a road trip seems like a sure way to step out of the bounds of daily routine and engage with the self and the natural world.
Looking for the road less traveled?
Following representations of road trips in literature, many readers have attempted to re-create, retrace and reconfigure the trips made by fictional characters, transposing the beat narrative of America into our reality. This has inspired avid readers and cartographers to create interactive maps, such as those found on Project Open Culture.com giving rise to the interest in interactions between the fictive and real. Perhaps this is telling our sustaining beliefs in the integrity of fictional places, or perhaps we simply wish to experience and become immersed in a mythical quest, looking through the eyes of another in an escapist fantasy.