A Brief History of the Great American Road Trip

I live in Asia, where no few peo­ple express an inter­est in trav­el­ing to my home­land, the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. When I meet such peo­ple, I always give them the same advice: if you go, make sure to take a cross-coun­try road trip. But then I would say that, at least accord­ing to the premise of the PBS Idea Chan­nel video above, “Why Do Amer­i­cans Love Road Trips?” While dri­ving from New York to Louisville, Nashville, and then Philadel­phia, host Mike Rugnetta the­o­rizes about the con­nec­tion between the road trip and the very con­cept of Amer­i­ca. It begins with phys­i­cal suit­abil­i­ty, what with the U.S.’ rel­a­tive­ly low gas prices, amenable ter­rain, and sheer size: “Amer­i­ca is big,” Rugnetta points out. “Some might say too big.”

As Rugnetta dri­ves far­ther, he goes deep­er: for quite a long stretch of U.S. his­to­ry, “progress and mobil­i­ty were peas in a pod, and mobil­i­ty has always been a sub­text of Amer­i­ca’s favorite soci­etal bul­wark, free­dom.” In oth­er words, “Amer­i­ca’s idea of its own awe­some­ness” — and does any word more clear­ly mark mod­ern Amer­i­can speech? — “is very much built on metaphors hav­ing to do with move­ment.”

In the 20th cen­tu­ry, move­ment came to mean cars, espe­cial­ly as the end of the Sec­ond World War and the begin­ning of the 1950s came around, at which time Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er, “inspired by the awe­some sys­tem of roads he saw in Ger­many,” autho­rized the con­struc­tion of a nation­al high­way sys­tem, the replace­ment for sto­ried but non-com­pre­hen­sive inter­state roads like Route 66.

From then on, the Unit­ed States saw an enor­mous surge in both car own­er­ship, auto-indus­try employ­ment, “the mid­dle class, sub­ur­bia, fast food,” and a host of oth­er phe­nom­e­na still seen as char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Amer­i­can. “To say that mod­ern Amer­i­ca was built both by and for the car,” as Rugnetta puts it, “would not be an insane over­state­ment.” But he also notes that the idea of the road trip itself goes back to 1880s Ger­many, when Bertha Benz, wife of Benz Moter­wa­gen founder Karl Benz, took her hus­band’s then-exper­i­men­tal car on a then-ille­gal 66-mile dri­ve through the coun­try­side. The first Amer­i­can road trip was tak­en in 1903 by a doc­tor named Hor­a­tio Jack­son and, as the Rough Guides video above tells it, involved a bet, a dog, and — the whole way from San Fran­cis­co to New York — no sig­nage at all.

Rugnetta also presents a philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion, derived from the Sorites Para­dox: at what point does a “dri­ve” turn into a “road trip?” Does it take a cer­tain num­ber of miles, of gas-tank refills, of road­side attrac­tions? A coast-to-coast dri­ve of the kind pio­neered by Jack­son unques­tion­ably qual­i­fies as a road trip. So does the auto­mo­bile jour­ney tak­en by Dutch­man Hen­ny Hogen­bi­jl in the sum­mer of 1955, his col­or film of which you can see above. Begin­ning with footage of Ams­ter­dam’s Schiphol Air­port, New World Sym­pho­ny shows off the sights Hogen­bi­jl saw while dri­ving from New York to Los Ange­les, with places like Nia­gara Falls, Chica­go, Mount Rush­more, Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park, and Salt Lake City as the stops in between — or the places, to use the phrase Rugnetta cred­its with great impor­tance in Amer­i­can myth, Hogen­bi­jl was just “passin’ through.”

Not long ago, a mod­ern-day Hogen­bi­jl made that great Amer­i­can road trip with the des­ti­na­tions reversed. Like Hogen­bi­jl, he filmed it; unlike Hogen­bi­jl, he filmed not the stops but the dri­ving itself, and every sin­gle minute it took him to get across the Unit­ed States at that. Lucky for the busy view­er, the video com­press­es this eight days of footage into a mere sev­en hours, adding an indi­ca­tor of the state being passed through in the low­er-left cor­ner of the frame. Even sped up, the view­ing expe­ri­ence under­scores a point I try to make to all the hope­ful road-trip­pers I meet on this side of the world: you must dri­ve across Amer­i­ca not just to expe­ri­ence how inter­est­ing the coun­try is, but at the same time how bor­ing it is. Allow me one use that most char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Amer­i­can locu­tion when I say that both Amer­i­ca’s inter­est­ing­ness and its bor­ing­ness, as well as its many oth­er qual­i­ties best seen on the road, inspire awe — that is, they’re awe­some.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Route 66 Became America’s Most Famous Road

If You Dri­ve Down a Stretch of Route 66, the Road Will Play “Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful”

12 Clas­sic Lit­er­ary Road Trips in One Handy Inter­ac­tive Map

Four Inter­ac­tive Maps Immor­tal­ize the Road Trips That Inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Down­load Dig­i­tized Copies of The Negro Trav­el­ers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civ­il Rights Guide to Trav­el­ing Safe­ly in the U.S. (1936–66)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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