Posts Tagged ‘the road’

The Road

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son’s harrowing and haunting journey, has been heralded as one of the greatest books in recent memory. Winner of numerous awards, including the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, The Road puts a different twist on the classic American story of a road-trip journey. In the novel, the road is both a place of freedom and a trap; the father and son need to travel the road to get to a better place, but it is also filled with danger. They must constantly avoid roving bands of ‘evil men’ who are often cannibals, and they stumble upon horror after horror in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. For the father, this is a redemptive danger for him, because he feels that he has failed his son and his dead wife in not keeping them together and safe. The father is also sick, he coughs up blood throughout the journey, and he wants to make sure his son is safe before he dies. The two of them are supposed to be traveling towards the coast, which was ultimately what people traveled towards when they would ‘go West’ in American history. I read The Road quite a few years ago, but I can still vividly remember everything that happened, the book is equal parts horrifying and tender, mournful and hopeful, while always depicting a realistic relationship between father and son.

The book was made into a movie in 2009 starring Viggo Mortensen (from Lord of the Rings), which was received just as positively as the book.

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The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the most classic representation of the road in American history. And, while Dorothy walks her road rather than drives it, many elements of the Road Trip story are still there. Most recognizable is the foundation of relationships embodied by the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion who Dorothy picks up along the way. They are not just traveling companions, but form relationships close enough to share their biggest weaknesses with the group and risk their own lives for each other. Needless to say, that means that the Yellow Brick Road also accounts for a certain amount of danger — in this case the Wicked Witch of the West’s attempts to kill and capture Dorothy. We talked in class about the road as a place that captures “redemptive danger,” proven by the group’s ability to overcome their supposed weaknesses to save Dorothy.
Despite the journey, I think one of the most important things about the road is that no matter where it leads, or what someone wishes to escape (evil Mrs. Gulch, that’s you), the road inevitably also always leads back home. We have been talking about the road in class as often some type of escape or transformative entity, which it certainly is. But, these transformations only matter if they are still present when we return home. To me, the road is a temporary representation of foreignness and excitement that can only be recognized as a juxtaposition to the comfort of home.

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The Road, a track on the 1977 album Running on Empty, tracks the progress of the song’s narrator, who drifts from town to town on the highway. The descriptions of location in the song paint a familiar picture, drawing on depictions of highway travel that have long saturated American culture. Many of the visual markers Eyerman and Löfgren cite in their essay as representative of the road story genre appear in the song, from the bars to the motel rooms. The song is concerned mostly with mobility, and the freedom from lasting personal relationships that it brings, though whether or not this freedom is beneficial to the narrator is ambiguous. Still, he continues to drive. The refrain of the song, “And when you stop to let ’em know, you got it down/ It’s just another town along the road” emphasizes his continued movement, always away from the people he meets. Here, the road is freedom from any demands that others might make, Eyerman and Löfgren’s “freedom to”, but it’s also lonely. In The Road, freedom isn’t really enough, but it’s drawbacks aren’t enough to slow down the narrator either.

This theme echoes throughout the album, even when it’s less central. In The Load-Out, the mobility of the narrator is more specific, tied to his job as a musician, but the theme of road travel is still there in the miles they have to travel between each show. Running on Empty, the track for which the album is named, has more obvious road connections, comparing the narrator to a car “running on empty”. Here, moving forward is a compulsion, a necessity for survival that defines the narrator’s life. Though The Road is the most obvious descendant of a long line of road themed media, it isn’t the only song on the album that embodies the tension between stability and movement that complicates America’s relationship with the road. In the album Running on Empty, the road is draining and solitary, but it’s also a fundamental part of the narrator’s life and identity.

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Having never actually watched Crossroads, I took the opportunity to relive the glory days that were the early 00’s while visiting the concept of the American road. Crossroads typifies a classic American road trip movie as a symbol for America. Three best friends, Lucy, Kit and Mimi, lose touch over the years until a road trip after their high school graduation promises to reunite them through achieving their childhood dreams. Ironically, the realization of the ladies’ dreams is found in California and Arizona, in the West, making it once again an opening for opportunity. Just as the journey to the old West was filled with danger, Crossroads is as well, but in the form of car trouble and destitution. The girls had to overcome the dangers of travel using cooperation to reach their destination and ultimately fulfill their American dreams.

After their travels, the girls were then faced with the danger of their dreams. Lucy dreamt of reconnecting with her estranged mother who left her as a three year old. Her mother rejected her, calling her a mistake. Kit dreamt of getting married, only to find that her fiancé was a cheater and rapist. Mimi dreamt of leaving their small hometown in Georgia, and traveling the world, but having been raped and impregnated, she had to rethink her dream to travel. After falling down a flight of stairs, and miscarrying, however, she now had the freedom to continue her travels, and had successfully left her hometown. Mimi is the only one whose dream came true, albeit in a horrible fashion.

All three girls went through traumatic events while trying to accomplish their dreams. In the end, those dreams shifted through the experience they gathered on the road, and while in the West. Their road trip transformation about the transition from girls to women mirrors the transition into Americans experienced by the pioneers. Much like other road trip movies, Crossroads presents the American road as a place full of opportunity, leading to the West, to follow your dreams, and to experience life-changing danger.

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It is no surprise that an American band who has toured as extensively and endlessly as the Grateful Dead would write a song about traveling the American roads. However, the Dead’s view of the promise of the American road is far bleaker than the vision of the Beat generation before them. In 1970, on their song “Truckin’,” Jerry Garcia and his bandmates draw a parallel between physical traveling and drug usage to show how something which initially appears to be liberating can lose its initial pleasure and become something utterly grueling.

Guitarist Bob Weir’s opening lines in the son, “arrows of neon and flashing marquees down on Main Street” reveal the initial promise that the road holds over its travelers. These inherently American images of flashing lights have a hypnotic hold over the song’s speaker as they imply prosperity and opportunity awaits. However, the glitz and glamor of these symbols of promise dissipates as Weir goes on to describe these images as “your typical city involved in your typical daydream.” In other words, after traveling from “Chicago, New York, Detroit,” the hopes of the road and of the American city in general are revealed to be chimerical fantasies and it loses its appeal. In the song’s alternating choruses, in which the Grateful Dead describe the action of “trucking,” this action of “trucking” down the road is not a liberating experience. Instead, it is more of a necessity. For instance, the line, “takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin’ on” sounds like more of a taxing experience than a pleasurable one. Touring the country and traveling the country generally is no longer an alluring experience. Rather, “trucking” is a monotonous grueling experience. As the song progresses, they list more and more cities to show how much time they have spent on the road. At each allusion to a city, the lyrics become more and more jaded to the hope of the road. The Grateful Dead seem to view the road as a sort of cyclical maelstrom much like the typical daily life from which the road initially appeared to be an escape.

It does not exactly take a genius to figure out that a Grateful Dead song is about drugs. However, in “Truckin’” the road itself is a rather clever metaphor for drug usage. Initially, psychedelic drugs such as LSD and marijuana appear to be the perfect escape from reality, much like the road itself. However, after years of drug usage, the Dead no longer see drugs as the same blissful egress from reality as they originally were; now, it has become an addiction that must be satisfied. When Weir sings, “what in the world ever became of sweet Jane? She lost her sparkle you know she isn’t the same,” it is clear that just as travelling across the country has become debilitating and monotonous, drug usage has taken its toll on him as well. Well over a decade after Kerouac and his cohorts initially purported that the road and drugs are two perfect modalities of escape, the Grateful Dead are acknowledging the bleak reality that the bliss of escape via travelling or drugs will inevitably fade into a hazy mess.

At the end of the song, Jerry Garcia sings, “truckin’ I’m a goin’ home.” Now, the dream is no longer of going home. Now, the true end goal for him is to just go home and “patch my bones.” Ultimately, the bright lights and glamor at the beginning of the song are swapped images of rest and relaxation. While the road may be a great vehicle for temporary liberation from reality, its beauty and majesty are important. In fact, it is dangerous to live within this escapist daydream for too long, as it will begin to take a physical toll on your mind and body. Once again, another American Dream-the dream of psychedelic escape on the road- is shot to flames before Hunter S. Thompson’s drugs even began to take hold.

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Life is (still) a Highway

Eyerman and Lofgren mention the metaphor of life as a journey numerous times throughout their essay. After discussing the topic more in depth in class yesterday, my mind continually came back to a song I have heard many times–Life is a Highway by Rascal Flatts– because the title of the song is literally the metaphor we are talking about. I checked out the lyrics of the song, and it turns out that the whole first verse directly relates to what Eyerman and Lofgren were talking about in Romancing the Road.  The verse goes:

“Life’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There’s a world outside ev’ry darkened door
Where blues won’t haunt you anymore
Where brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore
We won’t hesitate
To break down the garden gate
There’s not much time left today”

Eyerman and Lofgren write, “Going down the road, not only symbolized a way out, a going to and getting away from, it represented possibility, risk, and romance” (57). In Rascal Flatts song, lines like, “There’s are world outside ev’ry darkened door, Where blues won’t haunt you anymore,” speak to Eyerman’s and Lofgren’s idea of “possibility,” of a the road as being aa place where you can wash yourself clean of the mucky goo that your current life has bestowed upon you. Lines like “Where brave are free and lovers soar,” speak towards the idea of “romance,” as the road being a place of discovery, both personally and romantically. If you want to know if you love someone, leave the world behind and spend days cramped in a car with them, right?

What I believe is really enthralling, though, is the idea of “risk.” Eyerman and Lofgren say the road represents, “the throw of the dice, the chance of a new start and the ever present danger of failure…” (57). To me, the risk of the road is so appealing because of how accessible roads are to everyone in the country. While social and physical mobility are preached to be available to everyone in America, the road acts as a leveler of the playing field– The same road is utilized the same way by both the president of the United States and your Average Joe driving cross country. The road doesn’t discriminate against all the “ism’s,” it is simply always present and easily found. So, if life is getting you down, the road becomes one of your easiest ways out, no matter who you are, and that’s what has made the road such an icon in this country.

There is an urgency present when people discuss the road, though. This idea of, “we have to go now, its now or never.” Rascal Flatts certainly falls into this notion with lines like, “we won’t hesitate” or “there’s not much time left today.” I think the availability of roads is what feeds this idea–that the trip of a lifetime is just right outside your front door, tantalizingly close, so why keep prodding away at the monotonous life you live, when you can have adrenaline pumping through your veins and risk it all on the road?

In America, we preach that everyone has equal opportunity for mobility. In reality, there are people who want to “roll the dice” but have no dice to roll, or their dice has been rigged to land on only certain numbers. The road isn’t like that though. Everyone seemingly has the same dice. So, maybe, the road is a true manifestation of the American Dream we always talk about.

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Because of our discussions in class, I was reminded of this particular scene from How I Met Your Mother where the two main characters go on a road trip. This road trip to the one character, Ted, represents a path to the past. He sees this road trip as a journey with the final destination being his college days when he would drive halfway across the country with his best friend, Marshall, to get some pizza in Chicago. Marshall is now married while Ted had recently had his heart broken. In this clip, we see both Ted and Marshall forget about current responsibilities (and spouse) to enjoy each other and the road. Ted longs for a better more carefree time where he could be optimistic about the future and believes that if he and his best friend recreate those college road trip he could find that place again. To Ted, this road trip is also a cure to his problems; the end destination will bring him hope to find someone who completes him.

This, to me, means that America will always allow a trip through memory lane or a journey to better time.  The great distance between some destinations in the country allows for bonds and memories that come exclusively with a road trip to be created. It represents a promise that no matter how far away a person is in distance or time, he can go back to “better” times.

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