on the Road
An Excerpt from
A roadtrip is an
experience when the purpose of the holiday is the journey
rather than the arrival.
This excerpt from the
book discusses issues related to getting in the mood for a
This page is an excerpt from
the introduction to the book Let's Go Roadtripping USA.
What is it that makes a roadtrip different from average,
ordinary vacation? Like the car and open road, the roadtrip has
acquired a specific meaning; the type of roadtrip ingrained in
American tradition revolves around the journey and experience of
travel itself. As Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and Motorcycle
Maintenance mused "To live only for some future goal is shallow.
It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.
Here's where things grow."
At one extreme, a roadtrip can be a marathon, a test of
endurance, a major undertaking. Visiting all of one sort of
thing is a popular way of planning out a trip -- taking a tour
of Americas mystery spots, hitting up all of the missions in
California, or visiting all of the lighthouses on the East
Coast, for example. Event-based trips are also popular --
baseball roadtrips from one stadium to the next are an American
tradition, as are "follow your favorite band on tour" roadtrips.
Every year people make pilgrimages to large gatherings such as
Shakespeare festivals or to watch battles put on by the Society
for Creative Anachronism. Fair game, too, are historical tours,
such as the Lewis aid Clark Trail, and any sort of funky
place-name themed trip, like setting out to see both Truth or
Consequences, New Mexico and Love, Ohio.
At the other end of the spectrum, a roadtrip can evolve without
a concrete goal, only a vague direction and desire for knowledge
and experience. The exploration of a specific region or historic
two-lane highway is a good way to start out, as is following one
of the cardinal directions. This kind of trip, more digressive
and languorous, revolves around discovering the lives and
culture of the people who live along the way -- seeing every
historical site, stopping at every diner, mingling at every bar.
This is the sort of back-road wandering made famous by Jack
Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon. In Blue Highways: A Journey
into America, Least Heat-Moon separates the classic roadtrip
into two types of experience: the epic roadtrip and the lyrical
roadtrip. An epic roadtrip embodies the spirit of adventure,
while the a lyrical roadtrip is a journey of personal
exploration, the best sort of trip for solo travelers.
From Bonnie and Clyde to Thelma and Louise, roadtrippers traditionally travel in pairs; roadtrip culture is
oriented around the experience of a shared journey. Picking the
right friend or friends to bring along requires care, but a
trusty companion in the front seat makes the miles go by faster.
Bringing a friend also means you have an extra navigator --
unless your travel companion of choice, like John Steinbeck's,
happens to he a dog.
WHO TO TAKE ALONG
The Adventurer: Adventurers are outgoing and are not afraid to
deviate from prearranged plans to see a sight that a complete
stranger recommended to them. They are not embarrassed to engage
in long conversations with people they've never met before and
find out where the locals hang out. The adventure's motto is:
"Sure, sounds like fun."
The Navigator: These godsends couldn't get lost if you
blindfolded them and left them the middle of the forest. They
have lodestones in their foreheads, know how to read maps, and
yet are not overconfident in their abilities; they know when to
ask for directions. The navigators motto is: "Regardless of
whether this feels like the right off-ramp let's make sure just
The Optimist: These positive individuals somehow know how to
make changing a tire in the snow on the New Jersey turnpike feel
like a rousing good time. They take adversity with grain of salt
and keep the big picture in mind. The optimist's motto is: "Good
thing the radiator overheated, otherwise we would never have
seen this sunrise."
Miles of uninterrupted cornfields have inspired an
extensive collection of road games to eliminate that persistent
"are we there yet?" Favorites include I Spy, Twenty Questions,
Road Bingo, and the License Plate Game, in which the firstt
player to identify license plates from all fifty states wins.
For some ideas, check out
There is also a repertoire of roadtrip superstition. Details
vary by region, but standards include holding your breath while
driving past graveyards, across state lines, or through tunnels,
making wishes when you see a haywagon or at the end of a tunnel,
and raising your feet while crossing bridges or railroad tracks.
Another common ritual is the "punchbuggy' game, in which the
first person to see a Volkswagon Beetle shouts "punchbuggy!" and
punches the ceiling or (in a more risky version) the arm of the
person next to him or her. Variations of this classic, taken
very seriously by the finest of roadtrippers, include shouting
"p-diddle' or extending the ritual to include pink cars,
limousines, or cars with one headlight.
A growing concentration of rushed drivers on America's highways
means road etiquette is increasingly important. Unfortunately,
road rage incidents are no myth. Tailgating, gratuitous
horn-honking, driving with high beams on when approaching other
cars, eye contact with aggressive drivers, and obscene language
and gestures are all road taboos. On highways with two or more
lanes, the left-hand lane (the "fast lane") is for passing, and
on any road, it is standard politeness to let faster cars pass.
One of the most offensive gestures in the US is extending the
middle finger of your left hand. Also known as "giving someone
the finger," this gesture is considered not only rude, but
Because roadtrips mean long times in small spaces, certain
standards of car etiquette should probably be established before
you go. Communication is essential with getting along with
people, as is flexibility. Share, because other people like
candy too, and when all else fails, just chill out -- take a few
breaths, close your eyes, lean back, and feel the wind in your
Today, most Interstates and many highways are lined with
fast-food joints, but the real richness and variety of American
roadfood can best be found at local, non-chain ice-cream
parlors, hot dog stands, barbecue pits, delis, and diners.
Diners have historically been places where entire communities
congregate to enjoy a homestyle meal in a comfortable
atmosphere. The first roadside diner, however, was little more
than a horse-drawn wagon in 1872. Later diners included the
slick, streamlined eateries of the 30s and the
Colonial/Mediterranean restaurants in the 60s and 70s. The
classic diner, a modular, factory-made structure, still appears
along many roadsides, and usually promises warm (if greasy)
food, considerate service, and a piping hot cup of coffee.
With a little extra attention and a discerning eye, a
roadtripper can experience a variety of flavor, ranging from the
spicy green chilies of New Mexico to the sweetness of New
England maple syrup. Finding such regional delights at their
peak quality can end up the highlight of any roadtrip.
NORTHEAST. America's English settlers first landed in the
Northeast, combining their staples of meats and vegetables with
uniquely American foodstuffs such as turkey, maple syrup, clams,
lobster, cranberries, and corn. The results yielded such
treasures as Boston brown bread, Indian pudding, New England
clam chowder, and Maine boiled lobster. The shellfish are second
SOUTHEAST. Be prepared for some good ol' down-home cookin'.
Fried chicken, biscuits, grits, collard greens, and sweet potato
pie are some of the highlights of Southeastern cuisine. Virginia
ham is widely renowned, and ham biscuits provide a savory
supplement to lunch and dinner dishes. In addition to the famed
collection of animal by-products that make up "soul food" --
pig's knuckles and ears, hog maws, and chitterlings (boiled or
fried pig intestines) among others -- Southern cuisine has a
strong African and West Indian influence in its sauces and
LOUISIANA. Chefs in New Orleans are among the country's best,
and creole or Cajun cooking tantalizes the taste buds. Smothered
crawfish, fried catfish, jambalaya (rice cooked with ham,
sausage, shrimp, and herbs), and gumbo (a thick stew with okra,
meat, and vegetables) are delicacies. The faint of taste buds
beware: spicy Cajun and creole cooking can fry the mouth.
TEXAS. From juicy tenderloins to luscious baby back ribs to
whole pig roasts, Texans like to slow cook their meats over an
open fire, flavoring the meat with the smoke from the burning
mesquite or hickory. Eat at any of the state's many BBQ joints,
though, and they'll tell you that the real secrets in the tangy
sauce. For those in the mood for something ethnic, enchiladas,
burritos, and fajitas are scrumptious Tex-Mex options.
MIDWEST. Drawing on the Scandinavian and German roots of area
settlers, Midwest cuisine is hearty, simple, and plentiful. The
Scandinavian influence brings lefse (potato bread) and the
indomitable lutefisk (fish jellied through a process of soaking
in lye). Breads include German Stollen and Swedish Limpa Rye,
complementing an assortment of meats, cheeses, soups, and
CALIFORNIA. Fresh fruits and vegetables are grown throughout
California and the Central Valley; avocado and citrus fruits are
trademark favorites. Southern California has more Mexican
influences, while the long coastline allows for excellent
seafood throughout the state. California is also home to the
spiritual mother of all road stops, In-N-Out Burger, where you
can get a simple and cheap 50s-style burger that has been
nowhere near a microwave, heat lamp, or freezer. Do you want a
malt with that double-double?
SOUTHWEST. The Mexican staples of corn, flour, and chilies are
the basic components of Southwestern grub. Salsa made from
tomatoes, chilies, and tomatillos adds a spicy note to nearly
all dishes, especially cheese- and chicken-filled quesadillas
and ground beef tacos. In most Southwest roadfood stops, you can
get green chile, a spicy extra, on pretty much anything you
CANADA. Canadian specialties vary by region. Newfoundland boasts
the food with rather unusual names, including bangbelly (salt
pork in a spiced bun,) toutons (salt pork with white raisin
bread), figgy duff (a raisin pudding), and Jigg's Dinner (a
large meal prepared in a pot containing salt beef, cabbage,
turnips, carrots and potatoes). Smoked salmon is a favorite in
British Columbia, and Quebec is well known for its maple syrup
(served on everything from pancakes to omelettes to meats) and
varieties of poutine, a tasty combination of french fries,
cheese curds, and a thick, dark gravy sauce.
MEXICO. Cuisine in the Puebla region is often topped by the
regional specialty, mole Poblano, a thick, sweet chocolate sauce
served over chicken and turkey. Along with this is served
camotes, a sweet potato dessert. In Oaxaca, travelers drink
coffee a la olla (slow cooked with sugar and cinnamon) alongside
dishes topped with the local mole Oaxaqueno, another sweet mole
variant cooked with bananas. Foods from the Yucatan are Mayan
influenced and consist of meats baked in banana leaves covered
by fruit-based sauces.
Afoot and light-hearted, I
take to the open road . . . From this hour, freedom!
--Wait Whitman, 1856
The roadtrip that you are about to embark on is the stuff of
poetry. The journey along the open road in search of a new life,
new experiences, and a new understanding of America has fueled
the creativity of authors before the first Model T rolled off
the assembly line, and generations of writers and poets have
found life on the road an incisive place to mount a critique
against the fast-paced consumer culture of America.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain. A carefree
lad's misadventures typify the American roadtrip spirit.
Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck. A Depression-era
Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov. The famous and controversial
social critique of American culture, telling the story of
Humbert Humbert and his tragic love.
On the Road (1957) and just about everything else written by
Jack Kerouac. A Beatnik's odyssey and the seminal text of road
The Getaway (1958) by Jim Thompson. Two bank robbers flee across
the country and cut a violent swath across America.
Rabbit Run (1960) by John Updike. The story of Harry "Rabbit"
Angstrom's running from his former life and search for new
Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962) by John
Steinbeck. A veteran writer takes to the road with his dog
(Charley) to rediscover his homeland.
In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote. An analysis of a crime
and the mystery as to why two men would drive over 400 miles to
kill four people who they did not know.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert
Pirsig. A critique of modern Western values set on a
Another Roadside Attraction (1971) by Tom Robbins. The story of
comedic genius and 1960s counterculture recounting how a troupe
of camies come into the possession of the embalmed body of Jesus
Christ. Also check out the classic story of the hitchhiking
smalltown girl in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1983) by William Least
Heat-Moon. A trip through the backroads of small-town America.
Road Fewer (1991) by Tim Cahill. The documentation of an attempt
to travel from Tiera del Fuego to the tip of Alaska in 25 1/2
Interstate (1995) by Steven Dixon. The telling and retelling of
a father's search for the perpetrators of a seemingly random act
of road violence.
Amnesia Moon (1995) by Jonathan Lethem. The post-apocalyptic
journey of a boy named Chaos.
Dharma Girl (1996) by Chelsea Cain. A memoir of the the author's
move from Southern California to Iowa.
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. The story of a dark,
brooding man named Shadow and his involvement with the battle
between the old gods of mythology and the new American Gods.
NON-FICTION & POETRY
A Hoosier Holiday (1916) by Theodore Dreiser. A precursor to the
"road novel," this non-fiction work documents a roadtrip Dreiser
took with fellow artist Franklin Booth.
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1947) by Henry Miller. A
non-fiction account of Henry Miller's 1940-1941 journey through
America and his criticism of American culture.
Out West (1987) by Dayton Duncan. The account of a man and his
Volkswagon trip westward, following the trail of Lewis and
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (1990) by Bill
Bryson. A search across 38 states for the essence of small-town
American Nomad (1997) by Steve Erickson. The non-fiction account
of Erickson's continued road journey after covering the 1996
presidential election for Rolling Stone.
Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel and Adventure (1999) by
The American Poetry & Literacy Project. Collection of 80 poems
by 50 British and American poets, about travel and journeys.
Driving Visions (2002) by David Laderman. Discusses the cultural
roots of the Road Movie and analyzes its role in literary
Ridge Route: The Road That United California (2002) by Harrison
Irving Scott. An in-depth look at highway construction over the
Roadtrip Nation (2003) by Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard. A
"guide to discovering your path in life," this book focuses on
the carpe diem spirit of the roadtrip and explores how you can
apply it to your daily life and career.
RV Traveling Tales: Women's Journeys on the Open Road (2003)
edited by Jamie Hall & Alice Zyetz. An anthology of women
writers and their experiences living on the road.
Counterculture, existential, visionary, or just slapstick,
classic road movies tell the story of rebels, outlaws, and
nomads. If you want to learn just about everything there is to
know about the genre, David Laderman explores film's fascination
with the road in his in-depth study, Driving Visions, describing
the genre's "Modernist Engine" in its use of technology as a
liberating force and exploring how the film conventions of the
road have changed with American culture over the decades.
The Wild One (1954): Marlon Brando and his motorcycle gang,
rebelling against whatever you got, terrorize a town and disrupt
a motorcycle race.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967): The world's most notorious and
romanticized bank robbers, played by Warren Beatty and Faye
Dunaway, drive across the Midwest robbing banks during the Great
Easy Rider (1969): Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play two
nonconforming bikers searching for America on motorcycle trek
from L.A. to New Orleans.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, as
"The Driver" and "The Mechanic," drag race their way across the
The Blues Brothers (1980): On a mission from God Jake and Elwood
Blues find themselves amongst hundreds of wrecked cars, 106
miles from Chicago, with full tank of gas, half a pack of
cigarettes, in the dark wearing sunglasses.
National Lampoon's Vacation (1983): The now-classic Griswold
family summer vacation journey to Wally World.
(Sesame Street Presents) Follow That Bird (1985): Big Bird,
forlorn and feeling like he does not belong searches for himself
out on the road.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985): Pee Wee, a loner and a rebel,
goes on a cross-country quest to find his stolen bicycle in the
basement of the Alamo.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): Gus Van Sant directs this gay
interpretation of Henry IV, in which River Phoenix and Keanu
Reeves search across the country and across the Atlantic for
Highway to Hell (1992): in a retelling of the Orpheus myth, Las
Vegas newlyweds have to go to hell and bargain with Satan.
Wild Wheels (1992): Directed by Harold Blank, a documentary on
car art in America.
Natural Born Killers (1994): Mickey and Mallory drive Route 666
in this postmortem tale of murder and mayhem.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Three
drag queens drive from New York to Hollywood in an old Cadillac
that breaks down in small-town America.
Boys on the Side (1995): An unlikely trio of women drive across
the country to L.A. and find common bonds with each other.
Road Trip (2000): Four college students take off cross-country
to retrieve a mistakenly mailed incriminating video tape.
Rat Race (2001): A modern It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Y tu Mamá Tambien (2001): Two amorous teenage boys, ditched by
their girlfriends, travel by car through Mexico with an older
woman in search of a hidden beach.
Crossroads (2002): Starring Britney Spears, a heartbreaking
Künstlerroman telling the tale of three best friends striving to
realize themselves as human beings and as musical artists.
Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003): Directed by
Ken Bums, the story of the Horatio Jack, America's first
Traveling music has been around since bards have been writing
and singing ballads, and oral poetry of travel dates back beyond
Homer. In America, there is a strong folk tradition of travel
songs, with artists such as Woodie Guthrie singing Kerouacian
tunes about rambling through the dust bowl and living the
itinerant life. Distinct from the folk ballad is the "hot rod
song" of the early 60s and bands like the Beach Boys or Jan and
Dean, primarily about the appeal of fast cars and flashy
THE OLD SCHOOL (PRE-1977)
The Allman Brothers, "Ramblin' Man"
Blue Oyster Cult, "The Last Days of May"
Canned Heat, "On the Road Again"
Jim Croce, "I Got a Name"
Deep Purple, "Highway Star"
The Doobie Brothers, "Rockin' Down the Highway"
The Doors, "Roadhouse Blues"
Anything by Bob Dylan
Woody Guthrie, "Hard Travelin'"
Jimi Hendrix, "Crosstown Traffic"
Don McLean, "American Pie"
Willie Nelson, "On the Road Again"
Lynyrd Skynyrd, "End of the Road"
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, "Against the Wind"
Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run"
James Taylor, "Traveling Star"
Bobby Troup, "Route 66"
Tom Waits, "The Ballad of Big Joe and Phantom 309"
THE NEW SCHOOL (POST-1977)
AC/DC, "Highway to Hell"
Audioslave, "I am the Highway"
The Apples in Stereo, "Signal in the Sky"
Cake, "The Distance"
Sheryl Crow, "Everyday is a Winding Road"
Depeche Mode, "Behind the Wheel"
Eve 6, "Open Road Song"
Fastball, 'The Way"
Sammy Hagar, "I Can't Drive 55"
Judas Priest, "Heading Out To The Highway"
Modest Mouse, "Head South"
Tom Petty, "Travelin'"
Red Hot Chill Peppers, "Road Trippin'"
Song, "The Hard Road"
Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song"
System of a Down, "Highway Song"
George Thorogood and the Destroyers, "Gear Jammer"
U2, "Where the Streets Have No Name"
ON THE WEB
These roadside culture websites list all the funky stuff we know
you really want to see along the way. After all, no roadtrip is
truly complete without a visit to the two-headed calf of Ft.
www.driveinmovie.com The drive-in is not quite a thing of the
past; this site lists places where you can still enjoy the big
screen from the comfort of your car.
www.roadfood.com Lists and reviews a variety of roadside
eateries, all presumably serving homestyle, greasy, classic
American roadtrip food.
www.roadsideamerica.com A guide to "offbeat tourist
attractions," classic American kitsch, and just plain weirdness.
www.wlra.us This site is entirely devoted to the world's
largest roadside attractions, such as the world's largest ball
of twine, the world's largest cow skull, and the world's largest
watermelon. Who knew?
Copyright © 2005 Let's Go Publications
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15 Apr 2005