“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.
We wake up early the next morning and climb Harney Peak (since renamed Black Elk Peak). It’s the highest point in the Black Hills, and from the summit you can see the various undulations in the terrain extending for miles, until they finally smooth out into the plains on the horizon. It’s an uncanny feeling, like looking down out of an airplane window or clicking around on Google Earth, except, obviously, you are standing on what you are looking at.
On a hidden side of one of the many hills below is where we’ll head next; it’s now time to accomplish the stated purpose of our trip. Winding through the Needles Highway, the stereo is cranked up and we’re all anticipation. “I keep seeing presidents’ faces in every rock!” Zoë laughs. Suddenly, there they are, the real faces—somewhat smaller than I remember, but there—as we emerge from one of the road’s famous tunnels. Excitement from everyone, though Lera, who’s forgotten her glasses, begins squawking “Where?! Where?!”.
One problem with those who declare the “end” of [fill in the blank] (in this case, road trips) is that not everyone has been informed. It’s probably not incidental that so many of our most famous road-trip works were written by immigrants or the children of immigrants. The road trip turned Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac into Jack Kerouac. Vladimir Nabokov was forged into a great American novelist not from immersion in the American classics but rather from the twenty thousand miles of driving he did (or rather, that his wife Véra did) out West in the early Forties, chasing butterflies. And in his evening years, John Steinbeck (a third-generation American) said he was experiencing regret for writing about his country without reallyknowing it, which is why he set out to record what became Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
An outsider is more keenly aware of the fact that her ideas about a country are just ideas. Nabokov, in a note on Lolita, lets slip that he had given himself “the task of inventing America.” Kerouac’s characters only reach their epiphanic “new and unknown phase of things” after they’ve crossed the border into the Mexican desert, as if to concede that what they were looking for couldn’t actually be found in the real United States.
Do you know why Mt. Rushmore exists? I learn at the museum that it was more or less conceived of as a tourist trap. South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson proposed it as a way to draw visitors to the Black Hills, thus boosting revenue for the region. That a get-rich scheme got elevated into one of the preeminent symbols of our nation seems pretty symbolic of our nation, actually.
The man responsible for this act of ennoblement was the monument’s sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants. Robinson’s original plan was to feature local legends like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody, but Borglum convinced Robinson that the figures ought to resonate with all Americans, and he was undaunted by the technical challenge of carving them into stone. “Tell them I’m making Roosevelt’s glasses out of the most precious thing on Earth: Imagination,” Borglum declared. His vision and enthusiasm brought the project national attention and funding, and it’s this collective belief that sustains it high above the “kitschy” attractions like the Reptile Gardens and 1880 Town, both vying for attention and money in the surrounding area. Gutzon died in 1941, just a few months before the monument’s completion, which was overseen by his son, who was named Lincoln.
Vera also asked why there was nothing in the museum mentioning the fact that the land on which Mt. Rushmore was built was disputed territory, another point that hadn’t come up on my first visit. This time around we’d stopped by the site of the Crazy Horse Memorial beforehand, but, since it can be seen from the road anyway, we didn’t go inside on account of the $11/person entrance fee. Visiting Mt. Rushmore, by contrast, is free. You just have to pay for parking.
Descending out of the Black Hills, we ducked once more into Rabbit City (as my friends had taken to calling it) for dinner. Vera ordered a German beer, Zoë the soup du jour, and Lera a cup of tea with milk. For the main course, they all ate the bison burgers I’d promised. As we walked back to the car, I noticed with a smile a giant banner draped over Main Street declaring “Tourism Works.”
Then we began the long drive back. Retracing our steps, but with a different purpose. Vera was once again behind the wheel, while Zoë scanned through photos for something to post online. Lera started editing together a trip video and I, encouraged by my dad to write a travelogue, jotted down my impressions. Recounting the story of our trip to ourselves and to our followers on social media, embellishing and stretching as we saw fit, trying to chisel out of the mundane matter of memory something memorable—all this now seemed as necessary as the trip itself.
“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves,” Willa Cather wrote. In the past the things themselves, the landscape of the West and the ways we got there, did not require much embellishment from our imaginations. Perhaps only now, when history and technology has dulled us to their novelty, when the American desert challenges us so directly with its meaninglessness, do we really become full pioneers.
The country was always supposed to have represented a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Well, if you cannot count on a machine or landscape or adventure to inject excitement into your day, you’re forced to acknowledge that the only way your journey will have meaning is if you make it. In recording the trip you begin to form a home to go home to.