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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