Before I came here to Prague I spent seven months on a road trip exploring the United States and freeloading off my friends and relatives. Like most Americans I have been fascinated by the road and out there I had plenty of time to wonder why. What is the attraction that the road holds for us, and how did it come to be such a powerful influence in our culture?
The sun is rising but already the desert floor shimmers with the heat. Stretching out longer than time itself is the road, disappearing over the horizon. Along the edge of the road walks a man, his features indistinct in the dancing air. His worn boots leave shallow prints in the soft earth of the shoulder. He has been listening to a car approach for some time now, and when it gets close he turns and holds out his thumb. The car crunches to a stop and the man jogs to the car, the passenger door already open and waiting for him. "Where you headin', partner?" the driver asks.
The hitchhiker shrugs. "West," he says. West is as good as any other direction.
The road is one of the most powerful symbols in the American identity. While other cultures have borrowed and adapted the road myth, it remains uniquely American at heart. Americans built the myth and turned the road into a symbol of the hopes, aspirations, and longing of a nation.
There was a time, not that long ago, when America was unexplored. Our culture was fostered with a feeling of vastness, of adventures waiting out there. Even as late as the 1950's driving from one side of the continent to the other was a significant undertaking, filled with unknown risks and never-before-seen marvels. Images of long asphalt ribbons stretching over endless plains and winding among mystical desert formations filled us with the desire to get our kicks.
The Road Myth started long before that; the song of the road was sung by cowboys and settlers as they looked west with visions of land and gold. They sang of a new life and carried with them the dreams of a young nation. Life on the road was dangerous, even deadly, and always hard, but the reward was great. There was promise of freedom out there under the big sky. The myth told of a life of self-sufficiency and virtue where a man just needed hard work, daring, and a little bit of luck to make it big.
As the nation matured and the journey west became easier, the song of the road changed with it. The road still carried the echo of the old pioneer days, of the restless souls that had tamed a land, but there was no longer a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No new life awaited the traveler at the end of the journey. The idea of a destination faded from the myth, leaving the road and freedom.
In the myth the road itself became a place. An in-between that touches everywhere but is itself nowhere. Unknown and unknowable, it is a place where time is measured in miles and progress by the wear on the soles of shoes. There are no relationships on the road; the bonds that form between travelers last until the next town, where they will part ways again, simple anecdotes in the narrative of each other's lives. The road life is a collection of short stories -- brief, tantalizing, and inconclusive. Each one ends the same way.
Somewhere between the diners and motels, in a freight car or on the face of a driver illuminated by the glow of the instrument panel, lies the Truth. The pattern of the fat raindrops on the pavement while a hitchhiker waits for a ride could hold the secret, or it might be at the bottom of a beer in a run-down tavern. That the Truth exists is not in doubt, yet it is equally certain that the traveler will never find it. Still he must search, and add to the measure of his life one vignette at a time.
On the road one can only rest while in motion. The moment the traveler stops he is somewhere again, and somewhere casts a web around the soul, gradually tying it down with associations and obligations. The almost-glimpsed Truth flies on around the next curve, leaving a feeling of yearning in its wake. It is a yearning all Americans feel.
The Truth has other names. Freedom, peace, fulfillment. America. The mythical America where we have not lost our way, where our lives have a grander purpose, where nobility and virtue are rewarded. Most of us still believe in that America in some unconscious way. We know it's out there somewhere. We read the accounts and listen to the songs of those who are on the road as they report back what they have found. They give us tantalizing glimpses of a life that is not like ours, but they do not give us answers.
Some time in the 1960's the nature of the road changed again. Cars became more reliable. Interstate highways connected distant points with such efficiency that there was no in between any more. By achieving their purpose so well, the freeways made the destination the only thing. Distance is measured in hours, and the journey is a thing to be endured.
The Road of the myth is harder to find now. The wide-open spaces have lost their mystery, and the towns that used to dot the back highways to serve the needs of travelers have died, leaving empty shells of buildings, tumbleweeds piled up against the crumbling walls, the faded sign out front still legible: Gas, Burgers, Ice Cold Beer.
The Road lives on in America's heart, however, a wistful middle-aged memory of the glorious days of youth. It permeates our culture. Our heroes are enigmatic drifters. The word "freedom" is ubiquitous in automobile ads. The road trip is a required rite of passage among college students.
We Americans have created a new religion, an introspective and wistful belief system that few practice but all pay homage to. We worship freedom, solitude, and independence. We praise resourcefulness and contemplation. We dream of hoppin' a freight, sleeping under the stars, and hitchhiking. Disconnecting. Escaping. For all our collective brashness and bravado, we yearn for the peace of the road and a glimpse of what's over the rainbow.
If America has a heaven, it's an all-night diner at a truck stop, with Mac in back flipping burgers and passing them up to Sal (you know by the embroidered patch), who sets it in front of you, fries steaming and glistening, saying "Here ya go, Hon." You haven't eaten in 400 miles and the burger is perfect. There's a trucker two stools down, and he's flirting with Sal while the jukebox plays an old Hank Williams song you've never heard before. Unlike any other heaven, though, this heaven is perfect because you are just passing through. You have a slice of pie, leave your money on the counter, and saddle up to move on to the next town. Sal says goodbye and tells you to come back in next time you're passing through.
You just might do that.
(Originally appeared 2005-01-31)