The baking red sun hangs loosely overhead and the wind melts through your hair as your hands clench the wheel and you feel like you’re flying. High-waisted Levis perched on a smooth seat. Dust whirls out of control as your tires whiz through the calm, and you leave behind a trail of what looks like yellow smoke. It’s exciting; it’s dangerous. And the best thing about it is the freedom to keep on truckin’— to keep on conquering this pioneer’s cradle — to keep on the road.
I can’t drive. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. I lived in Texas for two years and paid a sum of money to go to Driver’s Ed for two weeks, watch instructional videos from the 80s, and then spend seven hours observing and seven hours driving in a car with a man from Louisiana named Pierre. On the first day, we navigated car parks. The thrill of sliding over speed bumps. On the final day, I was on a five-lane highway, fearing for my life. Six months after getting my permit, I stood in line for a long time and finally procured a license, no test necessary.
But really, I can’t drive. Despite this, I have a wild, unadulterated fascination with The Road. And, I don’t mean the Cormac McCarthy novel. I mean that long yellow-brick-lane that sprawls forth into the sunset. It’s a firm fixture in the American cultural canon — a literalization of the American Dream. It’s not so much about the destination — not about the white-picket fence or the 9-5 job that enables economic security — but about the long and winding road to that place. In Thelma & Louise, it’s the protagonists’ vessel for their transformation from dowdy housewives to gun-toting outlaws. In Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, it’s the moral compass and symbol of unity for the fictional band Stillwater and their entourage. As their fame rises, the band discards their bus and their groupies, only to fall apart. Being back on the road returns them to their roots — the music. ‘Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer,’ those on board sing as a chorus, counting the headlights on the highway.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke — the Jekyll to Hunter S. Thompson’s Hyde — and his ‘Attorney’ ride The Road to the capital of capitalism. Las Vegas: the great gambler’s mirage in the middle of the Nevada desert. Thompson is like a counterculture cowboy driving through the modern Wild West, whacked off his face on a moonshine cocktail of illicit drugs. About the journey, Duke exclaims that “it was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country — but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.”
In Alexander Payne’s 2013 film Nebraska, white-haired Woody Grant (played expertly by Bruce Dern) seeks out said possibilities after receiving and implicitly believing a letter from a company claiming that he’s won $1,000,000. Finally accepting his father’s fantasy, David, his son, drives them both from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in a bid for Woody to stop wandering off into the unknown. The ride cements their relationship, even after disheartening pitstops along the way. In the end, The Road allows Woody to transcend the emotional and physical restrictions a static life can manifest in a person; by the end of the film, his ‘true grit’ is realized. It’s beautiful and heartwarming and poetic. Small-town America shines bright in black-and-white.
The Road, then, in fiction and in films, is the quintessential symbol of freedom. There’s a kind of lawlessness inherent in the narrative of the wide open pathway that coalesces with the vision of the driver as outlaw. It’s hard to think of highways without picturing the Hell’s Angels cruising through California in fleets, or long-haired Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper flouting conventions astride their patriotic motorbikes in Easy Rider. And of course, how could I speak about this topic without mentioning the male-centric universe of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? The Beat classic in which Sal Paradise and Neal Cassady, famed front-seat heroes, revel in the homosocial euphoria of the bip-bopping, chip-chopping pursuit of America’s spirit. Fifty years on and the romanticization of The Road lingers on in the hearts of adolescents, driving license in hand, craving the ability to carve their own frontier.
I can’t drive. But in moments when university work looms like a large, grey cloud, blocking the baking red sun hanging loosely overhead, I can’t help but wish I could emulate the catharsis-cool of Thelma or Louise. Tie denim ribbons around my neck, wrack my nails on the steering wheel, and hit the gas. Destination: unknown.