“The joys of motoring are more or less fictional” — Zelda Fitzgerald, Letter to Ludlow Fowler, 1920
“Keep straight for 440 miles,” the GPS directed as we made the bend off I-35 onto I-90. Vera was to my left behind the wheel; Lera and Zoë sat in back. The three of them were in the U.S. as foreign-language instructors (German, Russian and French, respectively) at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I did my best to try to match their whoops and buzz as we struck out from the Twin Cities, but for me this was going to be a different kind of trip. The terrain that lay ahead was not unknown. Two years prior, just after graduating from a different small Minnesota college, three classmates and I went touring in South Dakota. The landscapes on that trip were overlaid with the afterglow of senior-year triumphs and the words of a college sweetheart. That glow only grew in my mind once I slotted into a dismal desk job in the “real world.” In those two years, though, I’d failed to get anything published (journalism was the career I’d hoped for), the girl had said goodbye and I’d begun bouncing around the country with a clichéd bout of post-collegiate bucket-listlessness. To revisit this territory meant having to sit still in the shadow of unfulfilled aspirations. Plus, I was coming down with a cold.
An hour outside the Cities we parked at a rest stop, stepped outside the car and received our first blast of steady wind from the west. Hats flew off and we took pictures. Back in the vehicle, we opened up a CD gifted to Zoë by a friend. (“Enjoy the road trip!” they had scrawled on the packaging). It was an album called “All Possible Futures” by the band Miami Horror. The album cover showed a couple of friends with their feet dangling out the back of a convertible. The opening number, “American Dream,” was a light, creamy track featuring a krautrock drumbeat, slick keyboards and airy vocals soaked in reverb repeating “American dream, won’t you listen to yourself?”
After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.
These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.
Sensing this reflex, the lines of a new Car Seat Headrest song run through my head: “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it / Haven’t seen enough of this world yet…”
But most of a road trip is just empty road. What’s out there to see?
At some point Zoë pulled a book from her bag and began reading. Tilting my head to match the angle of the cover, I recognized On the Road. I too had read Kerouac’s classic before my first real road trip. Senior year of high school, a friend and I drove down I-95 from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. to play in a Frisbee tournament and check out the monuments. The teenage me was taken in by the idea of (in Dean Moriarty’s words) “leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things.” I too wanted to “understand the world as, really and genuinely speaking, other Americans haven’t done before.” In actuality we chatted, ate fast food, and then I made my copilot read a Hemingway novella aloud as I drove. Later that year on a tour of Civil War battlefields with my parents, I crafted a road-trip playlist saturated with the sounds of Americana, then subjected them to my reading of a fat book of Whitman verse as we trudged through Virginia traffic.
The failure of life to live up to literature is of course nothing new, although the road-trip myth is both particularly seductive and particularly misleading. On the first count, because all you need to imagine yourself as the hero is a car and some gas money, and on the second because most road-trip lit tends to elide the fact that for the vast majority of the time on the road nothing interesting is happening. Meanwhile, technological and cultural developments have removed many of the challenges that generated the drama for the canonical road trip narratives. As Ari Schulman details in his 2011 essay “GPS and the End of the Road,” better cars, roads and navigation equipment all mean there will is less chance for something to go wrong, which means less material for a good story. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1924 “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” for example, each individual tire gets a name and each messes up in its own way. I don’t even remember the model of the car we took to South Dakota; it did nothing to make us notice it.
Liberated by technology and disillusioned of the road-trip myth, the latter-day road tripper must face directly the fact that traveling in itself is phenomenally boring. (Baudrillard: “The only question in this journey is: How far can we go in the extermination of meaning?”) The professional road tripper, after all, is the truck driver, one of the most unromantic jobs imaginable. Seen this way, it begins to make sense why Kerouac’s journey had to be enhanced by drugs and sex, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert had to gratify Lolita daily with candy and magazines and John Steinbeck needed the company of his dog Charley: they were all trying to distract themselves from the road’s emptiness.
Geology announces its presence when you cross the Missouri River. Plains turn to rolling hills, and then the Martian rocks of the Badlands break forth from who knows where. A mountain goat greets us as we enter the park and my companions’ faces light up. Zoë is from Paris, where wild animals are rare, and since being in the U.S. she has quickly been taken by the miracle of the creature we call “squirrel.” Now, the prairie dogs that dot the overlooks of the Badlands supply her still further measures of furry pleasure.
Dusk is approaching when we roll in to the park’s Sage Creek Campground. We get out of the car, carry our tents and bags to our campsite, and when we turn around for a second load we freeze. On the other side of the vehicle is a foursome of bison that we’d somehow missed on our way in. They’re munching on grass patches, evidently quite used to human interlopers. Lera and Zoë start taking video. A strange pride swells within me for my country having conjured up these creatures, who will no doubt leave a mark on the memories of my guests. “Oooh, so stinky!” Lera laughs as a bison knocks against the picnic table we’re eating on.
The next morning we swap stories of our fright over sleeping with the bison nearby. “I thought the wind was the buffalos rubbing against our tent the whole time!” “I had to pee so bad but there was no way I was going outside!”
After we hit up Wall Drug for coffee and lunch atop the Rapid City Dino Park, we drive through Custer State Park, where the bison and other fauna are more numerous. Our attention now turns to linguistic discoveries, as translating animal names proves less straightforward than one might have thought. Besides some English malapropisms (“prairie hounds,” “ground dogs,”), we learn that the words for “moose” and “elk” are swapped in both Russian and German. At one point, Lera claims to have seen a griffon, which we all inform her isn’t a real animal. (Only later do we work out the source of the confusion: grif is Russian for “vulture”).
That night I’m sad. “Why are you sad?” Lera asks. It’s been nine months since I’ve had a real job or any regular work during the day, and I feel like I don’t have anything to do, I tell her. “But you’re here,” she says, pausing to let me take in the dark woods, the modest lake. I stay up writing a poem about the bison to send to my mom for Mother’s Day.