Surveys show that half of all Americans still
prefer the car for summertime vacation travel -- instead of a plane, bus,
or train -- despite rising gasoline prices. There appears to be a
resurgent nostalgia for the great American road trip, a motorized odyssey
that's long been part of the popular culture.
In a new book titled Cross Country, author Robert Sullivan describes a true-life
summer adventure, traveling round trip by car, coast to coast on
the interstate highways of the United States. The 43-year old author says
he's taken the approximately 13,000 kilometer, one-month journey at least
30 times before, and each, as he puts it, has been an emotional experience
"because, when you cross it, you don't realize how big it is -- if you've
never done it before especially. Even after you've done it a million
times, you can't believe how big the country is. The Great Plains -- you
can feel the vastness of them. Then you're up in the Rockies, and you
can't believe that one country can hold both places at the same time."
The book is likely to
strike a chord with many Americans who hanker
to hit the road and see their big country for themselves. The U.S.
Department of Energy says taken together, Americans will drive a total of
about 1300 billion kilometers this summer for vacation travel, or nearly
14 billion kilometers a day. Most public opinion surveys show that while
many Americans are complaining about the climbing price of gasoline - for
this travel season anyway - they've decided to hit the road again.
In his book, Sullivan, recounts familiar car travel experiences. The
author, his wife and two children are cooped up in the family automobile
for days on end -- sharing stories, singing songs, and dealing with the
"You end up spending six or seven hours [a day] just sitting in the
car, eating nuts or cheese and crackers and apples -- and you move. You
move, you move, you move."
While the odyssey as a literary theme is
centuries' old, Sullivan notes that what comes to mind for many Americans
on a long road trip is the 1950's literary classic, On the Road, written
by the restless, free-thinking Jack Kerouac. Sullivan says that when he's
on the road, he's searching for the kind of insights Kerouac wrote about.
"He was definitely a 'road mystic.' I think that's kind of what the
driving cross-country experience does for all of us. It gives us a shot at
being a 'mystic for a minute.' It just means not necessarily thinking of
yourself for a minute, or your own place. It means thinking about somebody
else or somebody else's place and it means, for a minute, thinking, 'what
would it be like to be [living] here, and be in these people's shoes."
Sullivan's other heroes are early 19th century American explorers Lewis
and Clark, who were the first to survey the middle and western portions of
the continent for future expansion.
"Historically, the United States has always been about 'going west.' We
always talked about westward expansion, marching west to the setting sun. "
Sullivan says. "In the 1860's and seventies, there were groups of people
who started saying 'you've got see America to be a real American citizen.'
We've had this long tradition of trying to 'see America.' Of course, this
year is a very exciting year for me because it's the anniversary of the
interstate highway system."
Smithsonian exhibit 'America on the Move' pays tribute to Route 66,
which took Americans from Chicago to Los Angeles
The 50th anniversary,
to be precise, of the start of construction of what has become a
75,000-kilometer network of interstate highways crisscrossing the United
States. The largest public works project in history, the interstate's
broad, multi-lane highways replaced narrow, dirt roads, making most of the
country accessible to Americans who can only afford to travel by car.
For those who can't do a road trip this summer, the National Museum of
American History in Washington, D.C., offers what may be the next best
thing -- an exhibit titled America on the Move. Washington actress Hilary
Kacser plays a role in the exhibit, "a living history character," she
"Flossie Haggard. Flossie and her family -- like so
many -- migrated from Oklahoma to California [during the economic
Depression of the 1930's] on Route 66 and had all kinds of opportunities
-- economic, social, cultural -- because of what the road did. It gave
regular folks a chance to come and go as they wanted. She [Flossie] says,
'We were like a new community of automobile travelers -- Flossie Haggard
and her family -- on the road.' She said that 'traveling like that gave
you the opportunity to meet people you'd never run into in your
The lure of the automobile road trip, nearly a century old in the
United States, remains a powerful current in American culture.