Road Trip Stories

Road trip stories are basically mythic journeys. Usually, a group of friends or family are travelling together instead of alone. As well as meeting a succession of opponents along the way they argue among themselves. The Minotaur opponent who comes in from outside either binds them together or (in a tragedy) drives them apart. Occasionally a single character embarks upon a road trip, such as the butler in Remains of the Day. This man has no family, and that is the point. But characters from his past travel ‘with’ him in the car; they are there in his memory. This story necessarily relies heavily on flashback.

Sometimes the ‘road’ of a road trip is actually a river. (In stories, a river can function symbolically as a road.) In an American (or Australian) road trip story especially, hotels and motels may play a significant role within the setting.

Having apparently graduated from their secret schools, today’s YA-novel teens are all headed to the stars on colonial trips… when they’re not on road trips, but same thing, right?

@RogerReads

The trip to the stars is not so much a ‘road trip’. Think of it like this: The trip to the stars and the road trip are both subcategories of the Odyssean mythic journey. This story is at least 3000 years old. The hero is a traveller. After getting in touch with the unknown in his wanderings, the traveller experiences a mythological and ontological shift. (Ontological: to do with the nature of being.) The road trip is a type of transgression. The traveller leaves home (known) and ventures into the unknown, where they will encounter the other. These two basic groups go by various other names.

Travellers: Wanderers, radicals and nomads.

Home-bodies: Cave-dwellers, static, conservatives.

Some critics consider road trips, especially odd couple road trips (where two conflicting characters are stuck in a cramped space together, a ‘lazy genre’. Adam Mars-Jones said that of Lorrie Moore’s odd couple road trip short stories in her Birds of America collection, while acknowledging that the form provides her with some needed structure. He uses the phrase ‘basically travelogue picaresque’.

Why is ‘picaresque’ a borderline insult?

PICARESQUE: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.

Therein lies the main issue with road trip stories, because modern audiences don’t have a huge tolerance for episodic fiction. Road trips are inherently episodic, because the characters are travelling from one location (episode) to the next. Unless the episodic feel is overcome by the writer, road trip stories can feel like ‘one damn thing after another’.

The episodic feel can be overcome in a few different ways, but one of the most popular is to make an opponent keep cropping up. In Thelma & Louise this is the Brad Pitt character. Even after her is gone from Thelma and Louise’s life, we still see what happens to him. Then there’s the truck driver who ends up getting his truck burned out. We see him more than once.

The road trip story can also be unified with a separate plot thread. Thelma & Louise also utilises this trick, with the story of the police officers stationed at Thelma’s house. In contrast to Thelma and Louise, who are up to all sorts of crimes, the officers are sitting in front of the TV, waiting around the house for a traceable phone call.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF AMERICA’S ROAD CONSTRUCTION

  • America’s road network first comprised highways asphalted in the 1930s during the New Deal policy of Roosevelt.
  • 1955: Funding approved for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, the most expensive road network ever built. This will traverse USA and pass through urban centers.
  • 1957- mid 1980s: Construction of the NSIDH
  • American economy is boosted, especially transport and construction sectors
  • Freeways contain urban sprawl, and leads to a new kind of residential environment known as “suburbia”.
  • In the space of about 20 years, the majority Americans migrate in to these suburbs. In the 1950s alone, 19 million Americans moved to the suburbs surrounding the six major cities.
  • White people were able to buy a nice house in these suburbs through low interest loands. For everyone else, it was impossible. Camps and parks were developed to shelter about a fifth of Americans in mobile and transportable housing.
  • America now had a clear three-class housing system: Homeowners, campers and tenants. Over the course of a lifetime, homeowners pay the least for their housing. Homeowners are able to accumulate far more assets.
  • The richest Americans were able to buy housing in low density areas which excluded non-housing landuse and other social classes.
  • At the interchanges of the interstate highway system: office buildings, malls, motels, chain restaurants. These are found at the periphery of cities.
  • In order to get around, families really need a car. Car ownership became affordable for the majority of Americans in the 1920s and took off from there.
  • Those who didn’t move in to the cities and suburbs now experienced financial and social decline. Towns surrounding the old road network (the highways) were affected. Towns which depended on through-traffic for survival were abandoned. (Examples: Shamrock in Texas and Two Guns, Arizona.)
  • Suburbs became the theatre stage of social conformity and hives of social interaction. (In this context, ‘theatre’ refers to a ‘safe’ setting where things play out predictably, in contrast to the wilderness.)

THE VANISHING HITCH-HIKER

The road trip story is especially popular in America. The construction of the road network transformed the American landscape, and this had an effect on stories as well. The very old mythic journey was now pasted onto sprawling, urbanised landscapes, and it works equally well.

The story of the vanishing hitch-hiker is an example of a story-type which came out of the sprawling, urbanised America, but its origin is very old:

The origin of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker can be traced all the way back to a passage in the New Testament, where the Apostle Philip has an encounter with an Ethiopian whom he picks up in his chariot; Philip goes on to baptize the Ethiopian and then, mysteriously, disappears. (cf. New Testament, Acts 8: 26-39). This motif has been followed in almost every road myth, and the traveler has often represented a particular type of “Wisser” [wanderer]: even if he’she has not yet found satisfying answers to questions, he has certainly won the right to spin tales and narratives of strange and faraway places and transcendental experiences.

The archetypal road-myth: from the highway to the Matrix

Once Americans started to own cars in large numbers, the hitch-hiker story came back as an urban legend. First traces of the new permutation were found in Southern California in the 1930s. (SoCal had the highest rate of 1930s car ownership.)

Basic Structure of a Vanishing Hitch-hiker Story
  • SHORTCOMING: A car driver travels at night to an unfamiliar place.
  • OPPONENT: They notice a hitch-hiker and pick them up.
  • PLAN: The hitch-hiker asks to be dropped off a few miles away.
  • But before this happens, the hitch-hiker disappears from the car.
  • ANAGNORISIS: Later, the driver finds out (somehow) that the hitch-hiker was a dead person, ie. the hitch-hiker was a ghost.
SETTING OF A VANISHING HITCH-HIKER STORY

Once America had its new interstate and defense highways, leaving a whole network of old highways with ghost towns behind, the hitch-hiker story changed to incorporate abandoned places into its setting. Ghost cities, abandoned gas stations and road houses are perfect horror spaces. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) is a film example. “You Know They Got A Hell Of A Band” (1992) by Stephen King is a short story example.

Now to the metaphorical setting. These stories function as cautionary tales. The message is simple: Stay on the Interstate and you’ll be safe, enclosed within the status quo. The Interstate is a ‘theater’, where safe and predictable social practices play out. In contrast, the (old) highway is a ghostly, magical, unpredictable and if you go there, bad things will happen to you.

But the old highway also offers adventurous (or unwitting) visitors a glimpse at ‘the truth’, which can only be glimpsed by deviating from the expected, predictable path. If you’re lucky enough to come out alive, you’ll come out with some deeper truth. You’ll come face to face with the metaphysical and your life will be changed forever (maybe cursed).

Interstate: the ‘frontier’, legitimate American space
Off the Interstate: ‘bridge’ to the unknown, to abandoned places, alien exteriors

The story that punishes travellers from wandering off the beaten track serves to discourage people from social transgressions which jeopardise the stability of the individual in society.

SUB CATEGORIES OF ROAD TRIP STORIES

I mark the signature of classic and contemporary Westerns, sundry types of road film (doomed/outlaw/lovers subgenre in particular), and the seventies “buddy” movie. 

The Many Faces of Thelma & Louise
DOOMED ROAD TRIPS

In some of these stories the characters escape doom. In other stories they lose their lives. We don’t know the outcome until the end.

  • Duel: Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, commonly regarded as “Jaws set on land”.
  • Breakdown: An action thriller from the 1990s, obviously inspired by Duel.
  • Wolf Creek: An Australian horror story in which young people on a driving tour encounter a psychopathic murderer. The Final Girl trope is used.
  • The Half-skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is a darkly comic short story inversion of the picaresque road trip.
OUTLAW ROAD TRIPS
  • The Homesman: Think of The Homesman as a Road Movie with a Western setting. The Homesman has more in common with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) than with The Great Train Robbery (1903).
  • Tallulah: Elliot Page’s character is a bit of a trickster, criminal type. It starts out as a lovers’ trip but the boyfriend soon deserts her, which allows for a more feminist character arc.
LOVERS’ road trips

“The Road Looks Long”, a song by Soul Scratch, combines a love story with classic mythic structure.

BUDDY road trips
FAMILY road trips
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Big Love, when the family go on a pilgrimage to historical Mormon sites.
  • Gilmore girls is another series in which the characters go on a few trips together. These parts of the story follow the Road Trip rules of story.
  • The River Wild is set on a river but might as well be a road, like many river journeys, including Deliverance, which is about a group of man friends.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Long Haul
  • The River Between Us by Richard Peck
  • Gilmore girls take a number of road trips together, such as “The Road Trip To Harvard”.
  • See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng: 11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like.
Children’s stories feature road trips equally. This is an illustration by Fritz Baumgarten from 1946.

MAZE-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS VS KNOT-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS

The labyrinth is the graphic symbol upon which all mythic journeys, and therefore all road journeys, are based.

Related symbolically to the labyrinth is the knot. Both labyrinths and knots symbolise journeys. The difference is that labyrinths comprise two mirror-image journeys — the journey into the darkest parts of the soul (death) and the journey back out (rebirth). But in knotwork design there is no beginning and no end. (The branch of mathematics known as knot theory also studies knots with no beginnings and endings. The simplest mathematical knot is a ring.)

  • A story like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey resembles a knot more than a labyrinth because the ending suggests our main character will be on the road forever.
STORIES WHICH END ON THE BEGINNING OF A ROAD TRIP

These tend to be coming-of-age stories, in which the main character has matured, but just enough to allow them to set off into the world alone. The majority of the maturation process is yet to happen.

  • Fish Tank is another Andrea Arnold movie and ends with the main character leaving in a car with a new boyfriend.
  • Six Feet Under ends with Claire Fisher driving to New York to try and make her way in the arts. In this story, as in Fish Tank, we worry for her, because her concrete New York plans have fallen through, leaving her in a vulnerable position, but drawn into the spiritual journey to the point where adventure no longer feels like a choice but a compulsion.

THE NEW ROAD TRIP IS IMAGINARY

Road trip stories changed in the second half of the 20th century because of America’s new Interstate roads and affordable car ownership. Now, another big change is taking place. New telecommunications reduce the need for massive trips. We can expect this change to reflect in stories.

Francois Ascher coined the word ‘Metapolis’, literally meaning ‘post-city’.

‘Metapolis’ is the new urban form comprising vast networks of cities and towns. The original metropolis now extends beyond its suburbs and its sphere of influences extends to financial activities, social practices and cultural symbolism of people living far beyond its centre. The concept of “commuting” now also includes the abstract notion of tele-commuting as well … Through the use of cellular phone networks and internet superhighways playing the role of ‘spokes’ in a network of sparsely placed ‘hubs’, people can actually partake in the life of a metapolis and influence its functions, without being physically present in it. … it is getting more and more difficult to define the frontiers of this new urban form currently emerging.

The archetypal road-myth: from the highway to the Matrix

The space between cities is the new ‘No-man’s Land’. No one needs to go there when tele-commuting. It’s as if we’ve passed through a tunnel — the spaces between are invisibilised. We don’t give them a second thought.

Header photo by Toa Heftiba