Along with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and the Village People’s “YMCA,” Jack Kerouac’s 1959 novel On the Road must be one of the most misunderstood works of American literature. The novel’s protagonists, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (fictionalized versions of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady) crisscross the country in a variety of automobiles and with a variety of friends, drinking and carousing along a path that gets progressively more depressing. The novel culminates (spoiler alerts!) in a trip down to Mexico in which the crew spends days in a brothel before falling apart, and the final scene of the book shows Sal literally leaving Dean behind on the streets of New York City, “ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat” as Sal rides away in a Cadillac, off to see a concert.
It’s a grim ending to the book and one that makes sense given the novel’s trajectory, but you’d never know it from the cultural legacy of the book. On the Road has given birth to tens of thousands of road trips, and an Internet search for “Jack Kerouac tattoos” reveals that plenty of ink has been etched into the bodies of people inspired by the early pages of Sal and Dean. “The only ones for me are the mad ones” or “I have nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion” or succinctly, “burn burn burn.”
There’s something about the road trip, about the romance of the open highway as expressed in those delirious opening pages of On the Road (which Kerouac, fueled by Benzedrine, wrote in a mad rush on a long roll of paper, which allowed him to avoid losing his momentum by never having to put a new sheet of paper in the typewriter) that still inspires people to mark themselves literally with his words, despite how everything ends up in the novel. Almost sixty years after its publication, we still hold up Kerouac and the rest of the Beat Generation as examples of a kind of post-war American freedom.
Perhaps this is in our collective DNA. America is a big country, and, unlike bigger countries like Russia and Canada, where a colossal amount of acreage is frozen solid and nearly uninhabitable year-round, the vast majority of our country is accessible via roads that anyone with a driver’s license and a car can access. As On the Road was being published, the Eisenhower administration was well underway with the Federal Highway System, a series of interstate highways that sped travel across the country and were so widespread that they were even built in Alaska and Hawaii, where there were no other states to inter-.
We can go back farther, too—past Sal and Dean to H. Nelson Jackson and Sewell K. Crocker’s 1903 Winton touring car, the first to make the drive from the Pacific to the Atlantic and now exhibited in the Smithsonian. We can see it in the prairie schooner wagons and the Mormon handcarts, in the railroads and the barges and the skiffs, in the ships that carried immigrants from around the world to American entry ports, all the way back to the nomadic tribes that originally settled the country (and who apparently got here via the Bering Land Bridge, the interstate highway of the Ice Age).
We’re people who like to move, who live to move, and we love it especially when we hit the road in our automobiles. The casts of characters who populate the movies this month at the Byrd are all on the road for their own reasons, and their adventures continue to engage and delight us—maybe not to the point of a tattoo, but at least to the point of inspiration.
Maybe the first thing that any road trip allows for is escape—a chance to break away from the ordinary routines of our lives and do something new and different—to find the “kicks” of Kerouac’s adventurers. In our homes and our offices, we are ordinary people, but when we load up the car and head out, we leave behind the bills and stresses, the coworkers and the deadlines. We feel lighter as the speedometer’s needle climbs and the familiar falls away in the rear view mirror.
Once we’ve left our regular lives behind, what lies ahead is the new. At the motel, we marvel at the license plates from other states in the parking lot and collect brochures from the lobby—Dinosaur World competing with Mystery Caverns and Wax Museums (ALL AMERICA’S PRESIDENTS IN LIVING WAX!!! the brochure screams). On the road trip, we see things we’ve never seen, eat things we wouldn’t normally eat, try things we would normally push away, because this experience isn’t about seeing things we’ve already seen, but about embracing the new in all its glory and wonder.
And this is where the road trip turns inward. It’s a common cliché, but clichés always have that kernel of truth at their core: the road trip is a journey within ourselves (shades of Frost and his road not taken!). That’s ultimately what we’re looking for in the road trip—those transformational moments in which, away from our familiar safety nets and protocols, we understand something about ourselves that changes us. It doesn’t happen every trip, but it’s the impetus for much of our travels—the desire to see the country, and in seeing it, see ourselves differently. That chance for revelation and change—well, that’s the reason so many of us hit the road.
The characters in the slate of movies at the Byrd this June are all hitting the road in search of escape and the new and self-discovery. Some, like the bikers of Easy Rider, are out there because that’s their purpose in life; others, like Cary Grant’s harassed executive in North by Northwest, are pushed into the trip by forces beyond their control. Some trips will end badly; some will end well; and some will end in complete transcendence of the known universe (looking at you, 2001).
But there might not be a better example of the power of the road trip than Preston Sturges’s 1941 comedic masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a director of light comedic fare who yearns to make a serious movie (“a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!” he argues to the executives, who keep adding “but with a little sex in it” to his plans). Stymied by the studio, who tells him that he doesn’t know anything about the suffering of the average man, Sullivan takes off with only a dime in his pocket—but also with the studio in tow to pull him out of any trouble. He’s trying to escape, but his safety nets have too tight of a hold on him—his road isn’t as open as it needs to be.
This is when he meets the New, in the form of Veronica Lake (whose character is known only as “The Girl” throughout—although, as Sullivan points out to a policeman, “there’s always a girl in the picture” in the movies). An aspiring actress who’s calling it quits on Hollywood, the Girl teams up with Sullivan on his trip, and this time, their combined forces give them enough velocity to escape the pull of the studio and its comforts. They take to the road and the rails, dressed as hobos, and live the lives that they’ve only read about before. Without that safety net, the newness of things overwhelms them, leading to encounters with the police and prison (have we mentioned that this is a comedy, and a very funny one at that?). Sullivan gets the experiences he wants, and then some.
And this is where the heart of Sullivan’s Travels lies. At a screening of a movie far away from the comforts of Hollywood, Sullivan realizes the value of what he does—even of who he is. All along, he’s wanted to make his Very Serious Movie (titled, wonderfully, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a joke picked up by both The Simpsons and the Coen Brothers), but he realizes the importance of sheer entertainment, too—that the fluff he’s making might have a weight to it that he’s never understood until seeing it in this new light of travel.
Sullivan’s Travels is maybe the finest example of what the road trip might give us. It’s a joy to watch—funny and meaningful, with McCrea and Lake in their best roles, and with the great slam against Pittsburgh that’s ever been written. All road trips have to come to an end, whether in return to our old home (but newly changed by our experiences) or in whatever our version of 2001’s white room is. Although it might not be as familiar as Kerouac’s On the Road or Frost’s diverging paths, T. S. Eliot’s lines from his poem “Little Gidding” seem appropriate to consider during the month of June and the films at the Byrd: “We shall not cease from exploration / And at the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”