Traveling the open road is an American literary tradition. A history professor says the canon needs an update, especially to include women and people of color.
By the time Jack Kerouac published On the Road, his counterculture account of a zigzag adventure around North America, the idea of a cross-country road trip was reaching the mainstream.
One year earlier, in 1956, the Eisenhower administration had authorized construction of the interstate highway system, promising 41,000 miles of new roads that made travel almost impossible to avoid for millions of Americans. While travel stories were common long before the invention of the automobile, the rapidly growing network of highways meant more people could take to the road, and they could actually do it as a form of leisure.
But the matter of who could partake, and who could tell their stories, shaped the genre in one unmissable way. You’ll have no trouble finding a tale about a white guy hitting the open road in search of himself. Perspectives of women and people of color, by comparison, are few and far between.
“Historically, a woman who had the money to embark on a solo road trip still couldn’t, because she would have been constrained by her social class,” says Allen Pietrobon, a history professor at Trinity Washington University* who teaches a course examining the meaning of the Great American Road Trip. For people of color, meanwhile, the issue of safety has loomed large. “Travel is not the fun, lovely, free-flowing, discover-yourself journey,” Pietrobon says. “Even the simple things—getting to stop at a gas station or eat at a restaurant—are much more difficult.”
CityLab recently spoke with Pietrobon about the enduring narrative of the Great American Road Trip, how it has evolved over time, and what it says—and doesn’t say—about American society. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What defines the Great American Road Trip narrative?
The idea of the road trip is uniquely American. It’s not just the car: Traveling is ingrained in the history of the country. One of the first big rises in travel stories is in the 1840s, featuring the wagon train heading out West. They’re seeking wealth, freedom, discovery, adventure—the same things that sort of repeat themselves in the 1960s road-trip era. The people who set off are trying to figure themselves out, to go beyond their limits, or places they haven’t been.
Almost all the stories are driven by the idea of the quest—either to find yourself or to find the quote-unquote real America. There’s this idealized version of a more peaceful or true sense of the country. Authors go seeking rural areas and they go out west, to the Southwest or the Midwest. The outcome of a lot of those books is often disappointment: No one ever finds what they’re looking for.
What makes a travel narrative different in the U.S. versus other places?
I was at a conference where someone said something snarky to the effect of, “Why should we listen to Americans? They know nothing about the world. Only 36 percent of Americans even have a passport.” The response was, “True, but that’s because Americans don’t need to travel internationally. Traveling through the U.S. by road gives you everything you want out of travel: different cultures, different cuisines, different dialects and geography.” In few other countries do you have the diversity of nearly the entire globe within one border. You can get in your car and get experience deserts, oceans, lakes, bayous.
You’ve mentioned that even George Washington has a road trip story.
In 1753, the governor of Virginia had claimed some land where the French were building forts, near modern-day Pittsburgh. He sent a 21-year-old George Washington to walk almost a thousand miles round-trip to deliver this letter to the French that ultimately broke out into the Seven Years War. Washington became one of the few British citizens to go west of the Appalachian mountains to see what was there and he wrote a book about this after keeping a journal. It became the talk of the colony. Everyone was reading this adventurous story of a man traveling into a mysterious land—it’s almost the first American road trip book.
How did the arrival of the car change things?
The invention of the Model T after 1911 was a big shift, but we saw a spike in travel in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. People were traveling out of necessity because jobs are leaving towns. There was no social safety net, so if you lost your job where you were living, you had to find work somewhere else. Some people were riding the rails, famously, but only one in five people owned cars.
By the time the war was over, the rails had fallen into disrepair and people started buying cars again. Then the U.S. government started in on those New Deal programs, saying we’re going to build more roads, not only to link cities, but to reach into the country.
Car companies partnered with cities to sell people on the idea of road trips as a leisure activity. It was a commercialized, packaged good. Road trips were dangerous, and yet, they were being sold as this wonderful romantic discovery that you should do with your family.
The Baby Boomers had more ability to travel: It’s safer. It’s fast. It’s convenient. There’s growing wealth, growing mobility, growing leisure time. In 1930, it would take you about three weeks to drive a car across the country. By 1960, it only took four days.
There’s a kind of irony to driving a gas-guzzler to get closer to nature.
I grappled with that question while designing this course: Is the road trip a bad thing? We know about pollution now. Part of the luxury back then is carbon dioxide emissions were not on the public's mind. Gas was so cheap you didn’t think about filling up your tank and getting only eight miles to the gallon. Hundreds of years from now, people will look at us like we were crazy, piling screaming kids into a small metal box and then sit still in a vehicle for hours along these boring highways with McDonald’s and Exxon. There’s no discovery going on there.
But there’s something like Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of conservation there, too, where seeing nature makes you want to protect it. If we get people out of their cities to see the country, they might gain this lifelong appreciation. The same goes when people come to a city, they see the reverse of that. The commute I find dreary can be exciting to a family from a rural area, the idea of the cultural explorer works both ways.
What are some of your favorite road trip stories?
I have a few favorite books. William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America (1982)—I think it’s compelling not just because of his evocative writing, but because it’s the most honest. He focuses mostly on telling the stories of the people he meets along the way while ruminating on the peculiarities of American culture.
I also enjoy Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842). It’s a great look at a pre-Civil War America through the eyes of a “foreigner,” written in classic Dickensian style. One of my students’ favorites is Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist. That book details the Soviet leader’s shenanigan-filled 1959 trip across the United States, which provides a great window into Cold War culture.
A lot of the classic road books on this were written by white men: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac. Your course has readings from Vanessa Veselka, who wrote about how women on the road are greeted very differently: “A man on the road is solitary, but a woman on the road is alone.” What's missing from the road trip canon because of that oversight?
The structure we’ve come to expect of a road-trip narrative excludes women. Meanwhile, our culture tends to expect and reward men who embrace risks. In my class, we compare Smokey and the Bandit, which is shockingly sexist, to Thelma & Louise. And even there, it’s a question whether [Thelma and Louise’s] road trip is something to be celebrated when the ending has the female protagonists literally killing themselves.
Historically, a woman who had the money to embark on a solo road trip still couldn’t because she would have been constrained by her social class. Going on a road trip would tarnish her reputation. She’d lose her social standing, not to mention it would have meant abandoning her “family life” or her kids. It wasn’t until the 1980s when most women started to have the individually-earned income and freedom to even ponder such a trip.
It’s also often missing the stories of people of color. How are their narratives different?
Travel for people of color before the Civil Rights Act was fraught with danger. Travel is not the fun, lovely, free-flowing, discover-yourself journey. Even the simple things—getting to stop at a gas station or eat at a restaurant—are much more difficult. The summer road trip might be to go back to visit family in Alabama or Louisiana, but traveling as quickly as possible to get where they knew they would be safe.
There’s a spike in African Americans traveling in the 1930s and ’40s to France, England, or the Soviet Union. Even there, they’re still encountering something about America. Of course, those countries have their own problems of racism, but they don’t have the Jim Crow laws of the United States. They realize: Why are we putting up with this back home?
So much of the drama to these stories are about physically rough journeys. What’s still applicable to road trips today?
One thing we’ve lost in the modern era is that cars now are more reliable. Today, you can get in your car and go from New York to California being pretty confident you’re going to make it. You also don’t have to worry about following a map or taking a wrong turn. When I took my first road trip in 2007, I did it on a beat up old motorcycle that broke down frequently. I had to read paper maps. The adventure was going through the charts, pushing your limits, making mistakes. We’ve lost a lot of that with comforts of GPS and air conditioning. What are we really discovering looking through our windshield, driving coast to coast?
Any advice for taking a good road trip?
Have a general idea of where you want to end up, but don’t try to “make good time.” Take the back roads, because life doesn’t happen along interstates. Be open to talking to other travelers you meet along the way. They’ll point you to destinations and routes you’d never have considered.
Seek out “difference.” If you’re coming from Vermont, you should head to Arizona. If you live in Kansas, you should seek out the Pacific coast. Small town folk should head to big cities, and big city folk should set off to more rural areas. You’ll expand your worldview the most and have the most rewarding experiences if you push out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in a place that's very different than home.
Finally, if you’re setting off to “discover” America, then it’s imperative that you avoid the bland national chains. Embrace the quirkiness of the local diner or the mom & pop roadside motel. But also realize that there is no “real” America. If you’ve set off on your journey to find some myth that doesn’t really exist, you’ll always be disappointed.
*CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Allen Pietrobon’s affiliation as a professor at George Washington University. He teaches at Trinity Washington University.