Hollywood steers us down the romance of the road in Crazy Heart, the Jeff Bridges Best Actor effort about a Hank Williams descendant continuing to follow his bliss of hard gigs and one night stands into late middle age roads, his only constant partners a bottle, guitar, and car. This romantic view of the road is peculiarly American, with its roots in Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road, the Lewis and Clark Trail, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
In Bernard-Henri Levy’s (2006) American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, the popular French intellectual figured out his method early and easily: “The method would be as simple as the questions and concerns were complex. The road, essentially” (pp. 13-14). Few American writers have escaped paying a road toll. One of the first to feature roads, Hamlin Garland in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), did not romanticize the road trip. In his epigraph, he makes sure we understand that the road “is hot and dusty in summer, and desolate and drear [sic] with mud in fall and spring, and in winter the winds sweep the snow across it; but it does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled. Follow it far enough, it may lead past a bend in the river where the water laughs eternally over its shallows. Mainly it is long and wearyful and has a dull little town at one end, and a home of toil at the other. Like the main-travelled road of life, it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate.”
A precursor to the Naturalist writers, writers who would try to tell it like it is, Garland reflects back on his roads in this 1922 preface to a new edition of his book: “The farther I got from Chicago the more depressing the landscape became. It was bad enough in our former home in Mitchell County, but my pity grew more intense as I passed from northwest Iowa into southern Dakota. The houses, bare as boxes, dropped on the treeless plains, the barbed-wire fences running at right angles, and the towns mere assemblages of flimsy wooden sheds with painted-pine battlement, produced on me the effect of an almost helpless and sterile poverty.”
This poverty of the road is now camouflaged in neon signs, fast food outlets, strip malls. Gone are most of the Jesus Saves signs, and in their place U-Pick fruit signs, gas stations the size of baseball diamonds, rest-stops the Joads could have lived in. The road blinds and seduces: blinding white headlights and mesmerizing red taillights; corridors of an automobile economy. The camouflage is what makes it possible for a writer like Larry McMurtry to write a book called Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (2000). McMurtry writes in his preface: “My son, James, a touring musician who sees, from ground level, a great deal of America in the line of duty, says that when it isn’t his turn to drive the van he likes to sit for long stretches, looking out the window. ‘There’s just so much to see,’ he says, and he’s right. There’s just so much to see.” But where does McMurtry begin his road trips? “…in Duluth, Minnesota, at the north end of the long and lonesome 35.” Could it be the road is the only place left some of us can be alone anymore? For to be truly alone, we must be surrounded by others we can not touch nor hear. The road is a crazy place.