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The American Road Trip

C.G.P. Grey/Wikimedia

Every summer, millions of Americans take to the road. Whether or not they have a destination is rarely the point; the iconic American road trip is an end in itself.

Professor Allyson Hobbs teaches a class on American road trips at Stanford University. She’s currently working on a book about the experiences of African American motorists. American Experience spoke to her about when and why Americans took to the road — and what they found there.

How do we define a “road trip”?

I think what we call a “road trip” in American culture is only a subset of a much broader experience with travel. In my class, we often start by reading Jack Kerouac’s beat-generation classic, On the Road, which immortalized a particular set of ideas and images of a road trip: single men out for adventure, “just going” for fun, and a hunger for a thrill or a new experience. Often, the travelers may not have a very specific destination in mind. Or, perhaps, there might be a destination, but the route can vary dramatically based on what happens over the course of the trip. The real joy of the road trip lies in its spontaneity and unpredictability.

But road trips are forms of travel and movement that encompass much more than what we see in On the Road. Travel is a social and cultural practice that Americans have used to construct ideas about themselves, their society, the past, and the future. Road trips have a universal quality: most Americans will take to the road at some point in their lives, but each person will experience the road differently. The footloose and fancy-free nature of travel that Kerouac described was available to some travelers but not to others. African Americans, women, and members of LGBTQ communities tend to carry a different set of concerns with them when they are traveling.

When do Americans start taking road trips?

Wealthy Americans began taking trips in the early twentieth century. In 1921, filmmaker Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. wrote an essay for Motor magazine called “The Democracy of the Motor Car” after he and his wife took a trip to the West shortly after their wedding. Over the nineteen weeks that the Vanderbilts traveled, they met, as Vanderbilt wrote, “every possible type of person in the world,” including many people who he never would have met otherwise. He learned that he could not judge people by the car that they drove, as the wealthiest travelers often drove vehicles that appeared older or less expensive. But Vanderbilt was most interested in the democratic potential of the automobile and the possibilities for many different types of people to interact and to spend time together while on a road trip.

Vanderbilt was right, the automobile would democratize travel when cars became increasingly accessible to more Americans after World War II.

Taking a vacation became an American tradition for a growing number of middle-class families after World War II as a result of postwar prosperity, mass consumption, paid vacation leaves, and the development of the new interstate highway system. Vacations became a way for children to learn about American history by visiting national parks and monuments, and for Americans to strengthen family bonds. Family camping increased many Americans’ appreciation for the environment. 

Even for those who did not have the luxury of a paid vacation leave still took to the roads to travel to family weddings, reunions, or funerals. We often think of a road trip as the search for a light-hearted adventure, but it’s important to keep in mind that different groups of Americans traveled for many different reasons, and sometimes those reasons were very specific and very serious.

What kinds of road trips do people start taking?

Some of the most popular (and most affordable) destinations for vacations were national parks. Americans relished time away from overcrowded cities and the frenetic pace of everyday life and believed that they could find peacefulness and serenity in nature. But even national parks were not welcoming to all travelers. African American travelers had good reason to worry about their safety. And, when blacks traveled to national parks, they were often forced to use segregated campgrounds.

For many Americans, summer vacations were a time to return to one’s roots and visit grandparents and extended family. After millions of African Americans moved to Northern cities during the Great Migration, many black families would return to the South during holidays or over the summer. Parents would often send their their children to the South to visit family members for summer vacations.

This is part of what made the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 so shocking. Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was living in Chicago, had come to Mississippi to spend time with his family. When he was brutally murdered, he was doing something that every American child should be able to do. And that really terrorized African Americans.

While travel was relatively uncomplicated for some Americans, it presented serious challenges for others. What is the Green Book? What purpose did it serve?

New York Public Library

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide that was first published in 1936 by a postal worker named Victor H. Green. Green saw the need for African Americans to have a guide that could help them navigate around dangerous and unwelcoming places. Green relied on a network of postal workers to learn where safe places were and he relied on travelers themselves who submitted information to him. We can think of the Green Book as a twentieth-century version of the Underground Railroad for travelers.

Green wanted to save African Americans from the embarrassment and humiliation of being turned away from hotels and restaurants. The Green Book removed some of unpredictability and fear that many African Americans felt when traveling. It reminds us that for many African Americans, travel could not be as spontaneous as it was for other motorists. Black travelers did not have the luxury of “seeing where the road would take them;” instead, they had to plan their trips carefully. The road, for many African Americans, became an extension of the Jim Crow regime rather than an escape from it.

Another group for whom the road trip presents some uncertainty is women. What can we say about women’s experiences on the road?

Women, especially women traveling alone, have had to plan trips carefully and to consider safety concerns. The road can be dangerous and it has particular perils for women, but this has not stopped women from seeking freedom, adventure, and opportunities for exploration.

In my class, I teach the classic film Thelma and Louise. It offers a glimpse at many of the most enjoyable aspects of a road trip: the fun, the adventure, the friendships forged, and the memories made. But it also reminds us of the dangers that women face on the road. We can’t forget that at the beginning of the film, Geena Davis’s character, Thelma, is raped in the parking lot of a bar. When the film begins, Thelma is looking forward to a weekend getaway and especially to having some time away from her domineering husband and dull domestic life. But at the very first stop, when Thelma tries to enjoy herself, have a few drinks, and dance, she is violently assaulted. The film is a story of empowerment, and while it’s fictional, it’s also a story about the real dangers that women sometimes face on the road.

America is a huge country of vastly varied terrain. How do you think that physical landscape plays in our idea of the road trip?

The physical landscape becomes a character in many road trip films. There are dramatic views of mountains, canyons, and oceans and an emphasis on seeing the land, the whole country, and particularly going to the West. It’s not surprising that many road trips take place in the West or have California as their destination.

The scenery in films like Thelma and Louise and Easy Rider is spectacular. This beauty, however, is often juxtaposed with tragedy, or crime, or something that is not beautiful. There is often a tension between the beauty of the landscape and the complexity and the pasts of the people who inhabit it or travel through it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Published September 2017

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