I have a rant about public transportation and people’s behavior on it brewing inside me. Trust that I will repress it till a more appropriate time and a better place (in all probability never and nowhere, because rants about public transportation behavior are venting and many of them tend to be pretty much “get off my lawn”-y and achieve nothing positive).
Let’s talk a little, instead, about road trips.
The hero’s journey has been a part of fiction as long as fiction has been written down, as far as I can tell. And it seems that frequently the movement through space often parallels some inner movement or growth. I mean – this is litcrit 101 stuff, really.
But a road trip is something that I think is often both more specific and more vague than just a journey. A road trip is definitely at least as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
The mere concept of a road trip strikes me as really American and rooted in American’s notions of independent lateral movement as one of our fundamental freedoms or something inherent to the American spirit. Road trips in life can be spontaneous, self-directed, and contain arbitrary diversions and twists. This is often echoed when they come up in pop culture, in my experience.
The vital aspects that define a road trip in my head are thus:
- the traveler is moving at their own pace – there is lots of room for schedule shift
- stops happen when and as the traveler is feeling it
- there may be an objective but there is not a point-by-point plan on reaching that objective
- the traveler is open to the possibilities of the universe or fate or whatever you want to call it and also open to eating some truly awful diner food
The venerable and gravitational TV Tropes claims road trip fictions are usually comedies and are vulnerable to cascades of cliches and to sappiness. And frankly, I am frequently vulnerable to those things myself, and so may not be the best judge of the depth of their truth, there. The road trip stories I like the best, though, often share characteristics I find more poignant than that.
Close Quarters – Magnified Interactions
Anyone who has been in a car with someone for four hours or more knows how it can make a relationship closer or leave it cracked and teetering on the edge of an abyss or even both, by turns. Fictions that use road trips often take advantage of this and give us moments of emotional intensity that is tangential to any intensity of situation.
Real life road trips are steeped in a sense of place and of passing. Movies often echo this and give us a sense of the landscape being traveled through that includes soundscapes, vistas and even visions of foods and scents that can only be transported to the viewer via imagination.
Inner Journey with the Outer
Road trips are not just about getting somewhere. They are deeply about the experience of the interval between leaving and arriving. There’s something mindful about bringing your brain through space and through the different environments and experiences it represents. And even if you just wind up back at home, the brain you come back with isn’t the one you left with. And the only thing that connects the story together is the path that brain took.
Meandering or Lateral Narrative Structure
Like a road trip itself, a road trip story often doesn’t take a direct approach to moving its characters through the story. Emotional beats can switch quickly with place and the shifts in physical space can be like a renewal of the mental – one doesn’t exactly start fresh in each location, but it’s easier to move from one beat to another without direct cause and effect.
Ordinary Obstacles: New Frameworks
People on road trips aren’t exempt from the boring business of keeping the body alive, and often the beats in a road trip story have something to do with meeting a usual need in an unusual location or being forced to meet it in an unusual way.
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Of course, all of this really hinges on what is and isn’t a road trip movie. And certainly there are lots of arguments to be made and definitions one could mete out here. By these criteria, Magic Mike 2 and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert are road trip movies, sure, but so are The Wizard of Oz, or Mad Max: Fury Road.
I mean – even the TV Tropes folks would agree, I think, that when you start *really* building boxes for stories to go in, you can wind up defining almost as many as there are stories.
And my list isn’t really intended to be a definition, just a group of qualities I enjoy about road trip movies (and about road trips, for that matter). I’ll leave the boundary-painting to other folks.