The Epic of Gilgamesh is the best sort of road story: it’s a buddy tale. Gilgamesh, the arrogant king of Uruk, meets Enkidu, the hairy wild man, and a bromance develops along the lines of fastidious Luke Wilson and drunken Will Ferrell in Old School. Not only do Gilgamesh and Enkidu do a fair amount of Sideways-esque lady chasing as they develop into wingmen, but they also travel together to Lebanon, where they battle the monster Humbaba. When Enkidu later dies after the duo kill the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh’s sorrow is inconsolable, and he heads to the underworld in search of immortality. While any number of heroes like Heracles and Orpheus took similar trips, and Odysseus was on the road longer, among our culture’s ancient epic poetry, no one does friendship better than Gilgamesh. Any of us who’ve hit the road with a pal can relate.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Places traveled: Dusty Oklahoma to Weedpatch, California
What I like most about the Joads is that none of them ever wanted to go anywhere, and then they spend so much time on the road, they live on it. They cook, clean, sleep, procreate, and bury their dead on the shoulder of the highway. Unlike Sal and Dean in On the Road, who wander the nation’s interstate system to the point that they prove all this tarmac has left us with nowhere to go, for the Joads, the crest of every rise holds either hope or disaster. The reader gets to see the vast expanse of the West in lyrical terms as they crawl along in their jalopy, learning that “home” is anywhere, as long as we take our love for one another with us. Though the Joads manage to find a temporarily rooted salvation in the Soviet-style Weedpatch camp, the fence that surrounds them warns that to be in motion, even when unemployed and hungry, is to be free.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Places traveled: Las Vegas, the desert, the subconscious
As Raoul and Dr. Gonzo flee one escapade after another high on a laundry list of drugs, the extreme nature of their visions underline the basic goal we’re all in search of when looking for a change in scenery: we’re also hoping to undergo change ourselves. Every road trip is therefore a quest for something greater. There are so many ways to interpret Thompson, but there’s no doubt that he hated essential things about America. While a lot of this book does take place in the car, its ideas and accusations about American mercantilism, hedonism, arrogance, and gluttony make a bold, sobering statement: though we have vehicles, money, and roads aplenty, there is no escape from who we are. Since you can’t drive fast enough to get away from America, the only option left is to be messed up.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Places traveled: The Bundred family farm to the country seat at Jefferson
Family road trips can go one of two ways. They can either be enjoyable, or they can be how they usually are: the kids in the back whining, “Are we almost there yet?,” the parents up front all pissed off and snappy, and someone unknown, probably the sullen teenage sister, silently farting mile after mile. That’s an apt description of the Bundren family’s trek across northern Mississippi, except that Mom Bundred’s dead and rotting away in a coffin in the back of the wagon, and everybody else is fighting as usual. I once took a three week trip across America in a van with my extended family when I was a kid; my dad stayed drunk the whole time, and my mother kept reading maps upside down and getting us lost in the middle of Utah. I’d never imagined any road trip could be worse until I read Faulkner’s best book.
The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca
Places traveled: Florida, Texas, the American SW, Northern Mexico
I debated picking Lewis and Clark here for their exuberance and creative misspellings, but De Vaca has all of that in a much earlier time, on a much longer journey, that is less celebrated today, though it was much, much weirder. Landing near Tampa Bay in 1528 with 600 men, De Vaca began what would become a nine year overland trek, most of it on foot, which would see him survive years of slavery among Native American tribes with just three others from the expedition. One of them was a Berber named Esteban, the first African in North America. Another of the survivors saved all of their lives by displaying an uncanny ability at faith healing. De Vaca records a pristine, pre-Columbian America filled with diverse and distinct tribes, many of whom had already vanished by the time Europeans visited these areas again. De Vaca’s recounting of a hurricane as the sky filled with whistles is as accurate as it is unusual. Even Marco Polo didn’t see anything as dramatic.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Places traveled: Old Muddy
Huck Finn has the best of everything you’d want in an immediately sympathetic character: he’s a child, he has a tear-jerking back story of a drunken, abusive Pap, and he experiences poverty as brutally as David Copperfield. Best of all, he’s wide-eyed, innocent, and has an inherent kindness that sees past the awful racial boundaries of his day. Huck dresses well for his time on the road, in raggedy cutoffs and a straw hat; anyone who’s taken a really long journey knows how even your clothes begin to reflect how far you’ve traveled. But what makes Twain’s masterpiece so successful as a road book is that it’s a great example of how the close quarters of extended travel draw us closer to those we’re with. Who wouldn’t want to be floating on a raft down Old Muddy with someone as funny and decent as Jim? Quixote, Gulliver, and Bilbo Baggins all had long road adventures filled with wild, edgy experiences. But the reason Huck is the one that keeps getting banned is that his epic adventures make kids want to run away.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (and Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola)
Places traveled: The bloody, colonized Third World
It’s unfair to Conrad that his great book is indelibly linked for us to Coppola’s great film, but what’s not unfair is the intensity of these road stories. If we were to sketch the basics of what we’re trying to accomplish when we hit the road, three things stand out: we want to leave somewhere, we want to get somewhere, and we want to learn something along the way. What we want to learn most is about ourselves and how we will fare out there. There isn’t a road story extant that doesn’t in some ways capture the worry we feel when we uproot ourselves: Alice in Wonderland, The Road Warrior, and any of McCarthy’s novels, especially The Road, all take our latent fear of travel to an extreme. But while many road stories end with the journey itself being the raison d’etre, in Conrad’s and Coppola’s tales, the characters actually get somewhere. Certainly in both cases, the destination is more of a nightmare than the journey has been. But isn’t it nice to know that sometimes when we hit the road, we’ll actually find what we’re looking for?
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl
Places traveled: The Pacific Ocean…on a raft…and on purpose
Thor Heyerdahl was a celebrity in his day, a best-selling author, and a filmmaker who won an Academy Award. He’s the prototype of all the Bear Grylls-type ratings-chasers on contemporary TV, running around in rain forests armed only with pocketknives. In Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl had an explicit intention of attempting to prove that Polynesia was settled by Incans sailing against both the ocean currents and prevailing winds on simple balsa rafts. A crackpot idea for certain, and reading the often funny book, it seems like he was fully aware of how silly his thesis sounded. But what’s also apparent in Kon-Tiki is how thoroughly Heyerdahl enjoyed his insane voyage. His lust for life and the electrifying invigoration he felt on the road are the best of what we seek when we travel. Unlike the broken, pedantic wanderers in The Sun Also Rises, Into the Wild, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Blue Highways, Heyerdahl on his raft is even happier than young Che Guevara on his motorcycle. His book is the best example of the road trip as barbaric yawp, a visceral celebration of the beauty of our lives on this pretty planet.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Places traveled: The Future
What I find most disturbing about Wells’ most terrifying novel, is that even at the turn of the 20th century, the author realized that the world had grown so small that there were no truly new frontiers left to explore. So his Traveler sets off on one of the only untrammeled roads remaining: time itself (he covers outerspace in another great road book, The First Men in the Moon). The Time Machine, with its gentle Eloi and the vile Morlocks who eat them, is as imaginative as it is exciting, and Wells leaves no theme untouched when we think about our culture’s understanding of the road trip. We worship technology when we travel: even Ayla and Jondalar, who walked and rode lions across the far reaches of Neolithic Europe in Jean Auel’s “Clan of the Cave Bear” books knapped special flint tools before setting out. That’s really not much different than the guys souping up their Chevy in Two-Lane Blacktop, or their bikes in Easy Rider. Wells’ time machine is essentially a funky version of a car, and his Traveler becomes deeply attached to it. Ultimately, leaving home has always been a subversive act, and the Traveler accomplishes the two most satisfying things that accompany our longest journeys: he exchanges new ideas with the people he meets, and he falls in love with them. Who hasn’t hit the road to discover that not only can you never go home again, but you also don’t really want to?
Places traveled: The Promised Land
We’re in search of many things when we set off on the road, but what we’re really hoping to find is a better understanding of the ultimate. Road travel shakes us up, takes us out of our repetitive existences, forces us see how big the world is, the power of its elements, and how insignificant we are. While it cannot be said that the Israelites were comfortable living in Egypt, they’d become complacent, even dull. Once they entered the wilderness away from the pomp and trappings of the Egyptian cities, they understood the sort of weariness we all have a taste of after a hard day’s drive. Long journeys wear us down, humble us, and cleanse us of our old ideas. The road becomes both bath and baptism, a preparation for the experience of something new. For the Israelites, their long, hard road took them to the very face of God. Is it any different for any of us out there on the American highway? What do we think about in those long and quiet moments in the car, the landscape flowing all around us, rain coming down in the distance, and our old lives falling away: “Who am I? Where am I headed? Who do I want to become?”