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Getting there: it's the road, stupid: 05/18/18
When I started the road narrative project in 1995 and restarted it twenty years later, I naively approached the topic with a driver's mindset. What made a road trip a road trip, I thought, was the act of driving across the country.
Both times I started with the creation of the automobile, as is the automobile created the genre. Certainly, the automobile fundamentally altered methods of travel and spawned a subgenre of narrative, both nonfiction and fiction. But the automobile isn't the ontological crutch of the genre.
It's the road. And when the road isn't there, it's the absence of the road.
Let's look at an extreme case where it would seem that the automobile, or vehicles, in general, were the point of the story: Cars (2006). Or going back further, The Endless Pavement by Jacqueline Jackson (1973). Or look at Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming (1964). There are many many others: magical cars, sentient cars, self driving cars, haunted cars, and so forth. All these cars as characters, and what are they dependent on: the road. Or what makes them special? Being able to go off road. Or what makes them scary: forcing humanity to stay on the road.
Cars, busses, trains, carts, balloons, feet, etc, are all methods of following, or not, a road. The road could be a literal representation of the narrative: a typical road trip along an interstate. The road could be a thing of safety if people are held prisoner in some out of the way place. The road could be an illusion, where going off road is the only way towards salvation. The road could have a mind of its own (as the Yellow Brick Road is sometimes characterized).
In my research of the road narrative, most of the emphasis has been on studying the automobile as the catalyst, essentially narrowing down the focus on just one type of story. These stories are then further categorized by descriptions of plot for arbitrary periods of time. The categories go like this: stories about making / surviving the journey in an automobile (1900-1915); romance on the road (1915-1930); camping on the road or the great migrations of the Depression (1930-1940); young man's coming of age on the road (1940-1960); the Babyboomer disillusionment of the road (1960s-1975); post Vietnam feminist road trips (1975-1980s); Dystopian road narratives (mid 1980s-1990s). As the studies I've read were all published early 1990s, they don't include the most recent decades. (See American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film by Ann Brigham for more examples and discussion)
The problem with the approach of naming each era by the dominant type of story from the vehicle focused road narratives is that it runs the risk of ignoring outliers or shared tropes.
It was in my tracking down of the "crossing the cornfield" types of stories: basically the ones where the vehicle is left behind and the main characters are forced to go off road or can't find the road, etc., that I began to see a larger driving force to the American road narrative.