“a Prisoner of the White Lines”

July 1st, 2008 § 4 comments

Road culture, as I understand it, was a subversive kind of travel, an inexpensive and interesting way to meet people and get somewhere at the same time. The blue collar workers nomadically wandering the country tied poverty and hitchhiking together with the road. For Kerouac’s intellectuals it was a kind of uncensored way of seeing the country. There seems to be whole generations that took buses, trains, and cars before commercial airlines. An elderly lady without teeth I met recently told me about taking her children on a bus from New York to Washington D.C., and it seemed instantly odd—they took a bus? Hitchhiking is the predominant activity in On The Road, and the novel seems more about who was met on the way than about the act of traveling from the east coast to the west and back again. Jumping into (and probably out of) freight cars was a practiced art and an acceptable mode of transportation. Neal Cassady stole and dumped cars to make his way across the U.S. And yet I have no idea how true any of these myths, for lack of a better word, are. What I know of “the road” has been passed down from movies, books, songs, various elderly people, and even images. There is something very mythic in the idea of driving great distances. Perhaps because of where I am from, the road is wrapped up in the notion of the west, expansive landscapes of nothingness, winding through farms into cities.

Like most American myths that have survived, if in shreds, to my generation, the road seems beaten by painful gas prices, chain restaurants and hotels, and long flat freeways that, as the Bayman says, go around cities rather than through them. I saw someone hitchhiking around Eugene OR, and I realized that I used to see a lot more people doing it when I was younger, in California there was always someone sitting by the freeway. As we passed I asked M where all of them had gone, she shrugged and said, they just stopped. I5 is a no nonsense freeway, it is straight and direct, and does not lead into beauty until the state becomes to beautiful for it to be avoided. Gas, inching its way slowly toward 5 dollars a gallon, is almost surreal. We searched and searched one night for an “old historic hotel” somewhere south of Portland, but without luck. I thought the road was supposed to be carefree, but there is nothing relaxing about speeding SUV’s, or being sandwiched between garlic trucks—then again perhaps it was the “open” road that was liberating.

Between these two realities lie my feelings about driving. There is a hard reality about watching the state roll by that is lost from the air, the time taken to drive from the southern end of California to the northern part of Oregon provides visual proof for having gotten there. For me it seems less about who I meet than about where I am, places from childhood morph out of memory into a new reality, and the variety of the California landscape never ceases to amaze—desert into valleys, valleys into mountains. Towns I know by experience, by name, and not at all go by at the same pace and with the same kind of importance. The road seems to vacillate between being intensely boring, and mysteriously interesting.

While our landscape has become more and more generic, people, at the best of times, are not. Long trips in confinement with others feel socially unique. M and I had many miles of silence (listening to the other think), sustained outbursts of loud music and singing, sudden stops to feed the Ambivalent Uncle, and conversations while we saved battery power on the Itrip. It took days, and each day was expected to be filled only by travel. Parking at a hotel around dusk brought the three of us together for the night, over wine at dinner we would talk about anything but what had passed and what was ahead. The last night on the road I dosed to my uncle playing Travelin’ Man on his ukulele. While there is something undeniably romantic about the idea of road trips, the reality is usually less so. Perhaps they are destined to be a paradox: interesting and boring, personal and anonymous, fast yet slow, invigorating but sedating.

§ 4 Responses to “a Prisoner of the White Lines”"

  • a guzman says:

    We were on a timetable, having about two and a half days to get to Wilsonville, and going the most direct route possible took about all the time. California is a very long state, it took more than a day to get through while Oregon only took about three hours. The other way to go, I gather, is up the coast, through Frisco and by the time it connects to the 5 it is already pretty. It would have been more scenic but would have taken forever, and we would have wanted to stop every three seconds. This way at least passing by was less bittersweet.

    Road trips just seem like one of those things that isn’t what it was, thus making me wonder what it is, and since I don’t really remember what it was I wonder if it was ever what I think it was. Like protests or rock ‘n’ roll, off the top of my head, it seems to have been starkly repackaged without the cultural myth around it changing. Likewise, I wonder if people did pick up hitchhikers in a different time, or if they were always left to truckers and others.

    We didn’t pick up our hitchhiker.

  • bayman-townie says:

    my “m” says that there were two “souths” one of the u.s. roads – there were no interstates then – and one of the back roads. wonder if the same doesn’t go for road trips. personally i know that i am schizophrenic when it comes to road trips – heading east and making time – i not only took the interstate but took the shortest route even though it cost a mint in tolls. i also remember having to get up before dawn for a family outing so that we could make time.

    but i am aware of the old u.s. routes and when i have more time take them. during the navagatio i’ll make a bee line to the new brunswick border but after that all diversions.

    the biggest irony seems to be the most eastern portion of the great mother road of the north stunningly beautiful outside st. john’s only two carriageways but being the only option in a province where roads are new – pretty mundane after the twelfth trip along it.

    i pick up hitchhikers

  • bayman-townie says:

    don’t think that road trips are too much different than they are now. actually i think that they are exactly what they were. it is all nostalgia nothing more. names change – route 40 for I-70, route 1 for I-95, hojo’s for mcdonald’s not the chains of motels – except hojo’s – and for the most part people wanting to make time with the least amount of bother because it was the destination not the journey that was important. personally when we had multiple destinations it was race to them then slow down. google maps were AAA tripticks.

    what made – in my opinion – kerouac and road tv programmes – route 66 etc wasn’t the road but the limbo-ness of the road the frontier. looking closely the travel was rarely important it was about the places stopped before moving on. it modified into the fugitive, and now supernatural. the western version was have gun will travel –how appropriate for to-day.

  • a guzman says:

    Maybe, but I do think road trips incredible unpracticality now is different. I tend to think of renting a car and driving someplace as being cheaper than flying and staying in a hotel. I wanted to drive around the deep south before we left, but it makes little sense to do so. The fact that travel in many ways and to many places is becoming more and more expensive is quite annoying to those of us who are curious to see places beyond a certain mile radius of home. I am not sure why, but there was something contradictory about spending 60 dollars every time we stopped for gas. I suppose it makes the activity feel even more “nostalgic” than it already does, because it seems the only reason to do it is because you want to drive for the sake of driving–which calls into question my considerations of why that would be in the first place, what does driving have that, say, trains don’t. I would say different histories, this country seems more about the road than anything else, especially the west with our huge freeways and expansive states.

    And I do think the travel part is important, because it was almost a metaphor for a certain way to live and interact with people. It seemed counter to the American notion of security and being stationary, people seem to have a great fear of living paycheck to paycheck, moving from place to place–being forced to I doubt is pleasant, but having the choice is. I liked the beats idea of trying things out and picking up when they disliked goings on–jobs, girlfriends, etc. Avoidant perhaps, but interesting.

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