On the Road
and In the Book
11 Sep, 2009
Every time I fill my car with gas I think, “I could go anywhere.”
I know it’s silly. I know I can’t really just up and go. But to me a full tank of gas means possibility – the chance to throw some essentials in the backseat and take off. That spindly orange needle pointing at the big “F” suggests the freedom of the open road.
This all has a very definite origin – well, an origin and an inspiration.
The inspiration is the road novel. Chief among them in my mind is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, but all stories of travel are perennial favorites because the best of them make this feeling – this experience of freedom, excitement, and corroboration – tangible. Like the “buddy comedy,” the “coming-of-age novel,” and the “rags to riches” story, a travel story – a road novel – captures a feeling that is impermanent and fleeting and makes it last, available on demand.
To discover the origin of my wanderlust we must travel back in time seven years to 2002, when I was a junior in college. That spring I participated in a semester abroad, but I didn’t go to Oxford as many of my fellow English majors did, or France or Italy, or anywhere in Europe that students tend to. No; I joined a small group of American students at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
There is not space here to describe all that that trip meant, how it shaped my life and set me on a course that has already led me back to Kenya once and will undoubtedly land me on the African continent several more times. I’m hooked. That happens.
But this isn’t about Africa. Rather, this is to say that when I returned home from Kenya in the summer before my senior year, I had a lot to think about. I had seen the extremes of utter poverty and absolute beauty often reported by those who have been to East Africa. I had to reconcile my beliefs with all of this, and my attitude about money and possessions. There was much to think about.
There was one thing I was certain about, however – one privilege among many to be grateful for that I did not need to force myself to reconcile with what I had just experienced. That is, specifically, the knowledge that having a car with a full tank of gas is one of the greatest gifts my short life in the United States had afforded me thus far. Of course, I was grateful for my family, for all of my freedoms, so on and so forth, but the freest free I could feel was found behind the wheel of my ailing 1988 Volvo sedan.
Last weekend, my love for the freedom of the open road – and that love’s origins – came to a wonderful nexus when I reunited with some of my fellow students from our 2002 semester in Kenya and we took to the road together.
My friend Brian came from Boston and met Jason at his parents’ home in Nyack, New York, before collecting me from my apartment in Jersey City. From here we drove out of New Jersey, the Manhattan skyline dissolving into dusk in our rearview mirror, across the East Coast Mammoth that is Pennsylvania and up to Cleveland, Ohio where we were joined by Courtney, who flew in from Seattle, Washington (surely, a tank full of jet fuel must invoke a similar, probably stronger, feeling in pilots).
We had some calls to make around Ohio, people to visit, universities to tour, and years worth of living on which to catch one another up. There is hardly a better place to reconnect with old friends and share stories and reminiscences than the road.
And this is precisely what the road novel teaches us. Whether it’s Sal and Dean speeding their way across the Midwest in On the Road or Jonathan Safran Foer’s quest through the Ukraine in Everything is Illuminated, being in transit paradoxically allows us the opportunity to pause as it is a temporary state acted out between here and there, two places where, presumably, the business of life awaits.
On the Road is a definitive travel novel, and certainly among my favorites, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many other great road stories come to mind: Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson, many books by Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson – and for the post-apocalyptic traveler, there’s Cormac McCarthy’s recent masterpiece, The Road.
These books and the many, many others in the genre succeed precisely as they nail down the very unpredictability of travel, the adventure waiting, literally, around every turn.
Several years ago, in what could be called a rehearsal for this most recent, more comprehensive reunion of fellow travelers who met in Africa, Jason and I drove through the night, again from Nyack to the same destination in Ohio: a tiny town called Medina where every August a pig roast is held and friends from far and near are reunited. On that trip, as Jason drove and I tried, fruitlessly, to sleep in the passenger seat, we came across a car wreck that had occurred only moments prior to our arrival.
We found a teenager, just slightly younger than we were at the time, barely conscious and bloody in the mangled shell of his Volkswagen hatchback. He had fallen asleep and collided with the back of a tractor-trailer. Jason, a trained paramedic, cared for the man, who we learned was on his way to college, and I called the police. When the police and ambulance arrived and Jason’s help was no longer needed, we returned to our car, resumed our trip, wordless as we continued to drive through the misty Pennsylvania morning.
It was a reminder of what makes the road so alluring and potentially so dangerous and what makes books that capture the experience so wonderfully engaging. Anything can happen on the road. The freedom one feels while traveling overland at 80 miles per hour, with a full tank of gas and only a vague sense of what lies ahead, is directly related to the mystery, the unknown, the potential joy as well as the danger.
Courtney, Brian, Jason and myself all made it to our homes safely. We sped around Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. and New York with windows down, listening to music, telling stories, and laughing. For three days we reveled in the freedom of the road. But on the fourth day, back at home with an empty tank of gas and work waiting in the morning, I scanned my bookshelves for The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms, a collection I had purchased years ago after returning from another trip for precisely this reason – to make the trip last just a little while longer.