Random House Audio Listening Library

America on the Road: Chasing the Great American Road Trip

Roughing It Cover ArtJohn Steinbeck - Travels with CharleyOn the Road Cover Art

“I was young and ignorant, and I envied my brother…He was going to travel! I never had been away from home, and that word “travel” had a seductive charm for me.”
–Mark Twain, Roughing It

Planning a road trip in 2013 is about as simple as it can be. You type a destination into a web browser, and your entire journey will be fed out to you, turn-by-turn. You’re going from Chicago to San Francisco by car? Here’s the best route. You pick out a few audiobooks to listen to, and you head off on your trip. But how is that different from driving to the supermarket? What makes a road trip different from any other trip? At its core, a road trip is a journey from one location to the other, but it’s also more than a series of numbered highways, turns, and exits. A road trip is different from a simple drive because it’s a story with a purpose. You venture away from home to explore the great unknown, and you come back a changed person. It’s a basic story, but one that’s been told a thousand times before. Some of the most important American stories have taken place on the road. As you’re thinking about hitting the road this summer, here are a few tidbits from three famous American road trip stories.

Before he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his other famous novels, Mark Twain was just a young man who wanted to go somewhere. In his classic story Roughing It, Mark Twain described his journey across Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. What prompted this cross-country odyssey? His brother’s new job as Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Twain wrote, “I coveted his distinction and his financial splendor, but particularly and especially the long, strange journey he was going to make, and the curious new world he was going to explore.” Mark Twain didn’t have a new job to start in Nevada–he just wanted to get away from home and see the things he had been missing. On his trip, Twain prospected for gold and silver, dabbled in real estate, and even visited the Kingdom of Hawaii (where he was stung by a scorpion).

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.” –Jack Kerouac, On the Road

While Mark Twain searched for new sights and experience on the road, Jack Kerouac wanted to find out more about himself while exploring the country. There’s a famous line from the book that sums up Kerouac’s road trip perfectly: “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.” Kerouac was writing in the midst of the 1950’s, when conformity was the norm, and any dissenting opinions were tossed aside. It was an era when people were being told what to do and how to think. So instead of taking someone else’s word about what America was, Kerouac hit the road with his friend Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book) and wrote about a series of road trips from New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles, and back, with many stops along the way. He wrote down these experiences on one continuous scroll that measures over one hundred twenty feet. Just like Mark Twain, Kerouac was traveling to find America, but instead of adventure, he found inspiration. He made the road trip uniquely Jack Kerouac, and he captured the conflicted feelings of his era.

Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac’s road trips were the first of many journeys they would undertake as writers. But another great American author, John Steinbeck, didn’t take his great American road trip until the end of his life. In his travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck wrote, “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.” Steinbeck saw this road trip as a culmination of his life. He had been putting it off for years, and finally realized that time was running out. So Steinbeck packed up an RV (named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse) and his French Poodle Charley, and traveled from Long Island around the entire outer border of the United States. On the way, Steinbeck saw the newest developments in American Cold War technology, like nuclear submarines and fallout evacuation roads, but at the same time he wrote about the beauty and hope he experienced on the road. His comments on fear mongering, racial integration, and the pros and cons of government were all framed by experiences from the road.

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us” –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

You never know what you’ll encounter on the road, but those unexpected connections can follow you for the rest of your life. One unexpected side effect of Mark Twain’s road trip was that he became friends with a happy-go-lucky fireman in San Francisco with a sharp mind and a fondness for playing pranks. Twain loved hearing this fireman’s stories so much that he promised to put them all into a book. The fireman agreed, saying, “Go ahead…but don’t disgrace my name.” That fireman’s name was Tom Sawyer. Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would make him one of the most famous American writers in history. What started off as an impulse trip became a defining moment for Mark Twain. He couldn’t have written The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if he hadn’t gone on his road trip.

Even if you’re not a writer, you can still search for this kind of experience on the road just by meeting new people and seeing new things. Do you like jogging? Why not try a road trip that will let you run alongside the Grand Canyon? After experiencing the view, you’ll be able to take the memory with you on your day-to-day jogging route. Or maybe History is your thing. Why not visit the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, and talk to the ship’s veterans who volunteer there? It’s easy to read an article about World War II, but how often can you speak with a World War II veteran on their own ship? The internet and digital age have given us access to more information than ever before, but information does not equal experience. Twain, Steinbeck, and Kerouac had experiences you can’t get from reading Wikipedia or looking at a photo slideshow, and that’s what makes them even more important to seek out today. As Kerouac said, “The best teacher is experience,” and it’s impossible to experience a new place if you never leave home.

A road trip is about leaving—leaving home, leaving family, or leaving the familiar to discover something new. And what is that you’re trying to find on the road? Maybe you’re looking for a greater sense of meaning in this world? Or maybe you’re looking for the best cheeseburger you’ve ever eaten. Either way, a road trip is a personal journey more than a physical one. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to find, it’s the leaving that’s important. So as you’re planning your own road trip for this summer, don’t forget about what you’re looking to find on the road. Like Mark Twain, you might want to experience the great outdoors for the first time. Or, you might be looking for new and exciting life-changing experiences like Jack Kerouac. The important thing is to look for meaning beyond the maps and street signs, and to discover yourself along with all the other wonders you’ll find on the road.

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