It may come as a surprise, but I actually love flying. I love everything about it. I love the bureaucratic hassle of security and the sterility of airports. Above all, however, I love watching the great American empire fly by thousands of feet below me.
As someone from California with family in Connecticut, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and from up in the air I can see the way the ground and roads shift and change as I move. I always dreamed that I would someday drive across the country and see those fly-over states from the ground, despite my lack of skills or resources.
For those such as myself, I offer a solution.
The road trip has long been a staple of American popular culture. There’s often enough substance within a book or story such that one doesn’t need to go on the trip at all. These stories have value in what themes they express. Often a coming-of-age story, a commentary on American culture or a quite literal journey towards bigger and better things, the road trip reminds us just why roads are some of our oldest metaphors; we do not find out where it is we want to go until we are lost.
Oftentimes we learn that what we thought we wanted is false, like the pageant in “Little Miss Sunshine” or salvation in my favorite novel, “The Last Days of California,” by Mary Miller. I love this book because it encapsulates everything I love about the road trip novel: teen angst, existential dread and a questioning of what the world has become.
It also doesn’t hurt that I found it in a little bookstore on the outskirts of L.A. while I was on a road trip myself, or that it had the word “California” in the title.
It turns out that the characters in the novel were going to the same place as I was, albeit for a different reason. The novel follows a family who wants to see the Pacific Ocean before the rapture comes. “I want you to experience the real America before it’s too late,” the father explains, “the places where real people live and worship.”
However, like many literary figures before him, he makes a tragic mistake. There is no salvation in California. Manifest Destiny has been completed and the two oceans have been bridged. We have gone west enough. Now we must ride back across the plains, sewing the frayed seams of regionalism by meeting those who have been flown over.
What the father does remember, though, is that however beautiful the countryside is, the journey is about the people. It is about finding the humanity of those people in the Holiday Inns and the truck stops, as well as the teenagers standing behind the 7/11 counters because we are all wanderers in some way or another. These stories should reveal the humanity in all of them, be they travel mates or lightly veiled metaphors for Jesus.
More than anything else, the stories of road trips are important because they show us who we are when we are alone in a world that is not ours.
However dark and dangerous the Mojave or the Badlands are at night, it is good to know that just 16 miles away, there is Marty’s Old-Fashioned Diner and a waitress ready to serve a breakfast of a cup of coffee, eggs and hash browns with a side of toast for the weary traveler. “Go East, Young American, Go East!”