Rules for an American Fantasy Road Trip


The Wall Street Journal’s list of 50 things we can blame on high gas prices was all over the blogs this week. Strangely missing from it is the fact that cross-country roadtripping, the quintessential American experience, is becoming obsolete. This summer we should all be so lucky to weave in and out of little backwater and dirt road towns, where the people stare as they would at aliens,look at the young city persons with their skinny jeans and asymmetric haircuts!

Of course, the best way to roadtrip, as films would have it, is to go it alone. Then you are more likely to come across an attractive stranger, with whom you will exchange sidelong glances — sometimes through the rearview mirror. At the first rest stop, you will have the chance to evaluate whether or not the mysterious stranger is height/weight proportionate and not crazy-seeming (well, maybe a little crazy,) but this is still not the time to proceed with anything.

Several states later, another rest stop, and you exchange a faint “Hey,” and maybe a nod. Then you get gas someplace else toward the end of the day and have a deep conversation over a cup of terrible coffee about the terrible things that have happened to you in the past, like some uncle who used to beat you in the woodshed or something, carefully neglecting to mention your hometown, name, occupation, or age.


At some point in the conversation, one will ask the other, “Where are you going?”


“Nowhere,” with a shrug, is the only appropriate response to this question.


No one asks where you are coming from.

Only at the 5th rest stop, and the third cup of terrible coffee and second or third vague conversation, is it appropriate to inquire, “So where are you staying tonight?” Illicit substances may or may not be procured at this point in the adventure. The next morning you must have breakfast at a diner, maybe a retrofitted train car, where a middle-aged frizzy haired waitress with an obsolete name like “Blanche” or “Mildred” serves rubbery omelette with white bread toast and margarine. Different kinds of pies and grapenut custard are displayed in a revolving glass case by the door.

Five Easy Pieces is my favorite road movie, pretty much because it’s my favorite movie. But Laurie Bird in Two-lane Blacktop is the consummate roadtrip lady friend. She’s credited as “the girl,” even though she appears in a quarter of all the scenes, she never gets a name. So yeah, no exchanging names on the road. You’re nothing more than “the girl,” with nothing more than a backpack to hold all of your possessions. That’s another rule.

Sadly, the beautifully wistful Laurie Bird killed herself when she was 25 in her boyfriend Art Garfunkel’s apartment — he who wrote the consummate roadtrip lyric, “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/ They’ve all gone to look for America.”

There’s that other roadtrip lyric,“Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona,” which created a tourism platform in Winslow, Arizona out of necessity.

When Interstate 40 replaced Route 66, towns along 66 shuttered their diners and B&Bs. There were no more weary road travelers to feed. In the meantime, the Jackson Browne stomping ground capitalized on the song’s success by building a public space called “Standin’ on the Corner Park” complete with a totally heinous looking statue of someone “standin’ on the corner”:

A brief history of the town per Wikipedia:


The scene described in the song was replicated as a trompe-l’oeil mural painted on the side of a building in Standin’ on the Corner Park in Winslow. On October 18, 2004, a fire destroyed the building on which the mural was painted. The wall and the mural were preserved, but the park temporarily closed.

In November of 2006, the city of Winslow purchased the property where the building had stood. The wall with the mural was secured and the rest of the building torn down.

As of August 2007, the corner of the park, with the statue and the mural, is accessible again. Plans are underway to expand the mural to cover the remaining wall, and to expand the park onto both sides of the wall.

The town also posted a billboard on I-40 with the words: “Winslow, Arizona says ‘Take it easy’”.

Wikipedia also says the road movie, “has its roots in spoken and written tales of epic journeys, such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid. The road film is a standard plot employed by screenwriters. It is a kind of bildungsroman, a kind of story in which the hero changes, grows or improves over the course of the story. The modern “road picture” is to filmmakers what the heroic quest was to Medieval writers.” My then boyfriend, a few years ago, a very paranoid person who was nevertheless usually right about these things, always used to say “this is the last year we can roadtrip so we should do it now,” but at the time I thought going abroad would make the best escape.

Now it’s true. The roadtrip is already a forgotten concept like a drive-in movie. And there’s no other American experience that can take its place.


Images by Stephen Shore

The Tomorrow Museum
Jul 10, 2008