My family likes cars; we have always had them despite living in New York City and taking the subway to work. When I was a child we used to drive upstate on the weekends; then to go to Moses farm stand, Fails Dairy, and Hathaway’s drive-in movie once we got there. We drove to summer vacations in North Carolina, Cape Cod, Williamsburg, and even cross-country.
We drove to California and back in 1972 in my dad’s shiny, new, metallic-brown Thunderbird. It was an amazing journey. I saw things I never knew existed, like Meteor Crater and the Great Salt Lake and things that my parents swear don’t exist like jackalopes. (I am still not so sure about that one; after all, I saw them.)
Despite disliking having to drive cars, my husband likes them. We have rented and driven them all over the world with varying degrees of success. (“How do you say fill the tank in Norwegian?” “Oh, fuck it; let’s find a gas station nearer the airport where they speak English.” “Or Italian, maybe. Think anyone speaks Italian?” “In Oslo???”)
Judging by filmed entertainment, my family is not alone. There has been an extraordinary number of road movies released; the Internet lists no fewer than 642. Walter Salles of The New York Times calls Robert Flaherty’s documentary Nanook of the North (1922) the first road movie (2007). Maybe, but I am thinking more of fictional, transformative, tales, like Detour, a moody, 1945 film noir; perennial Boomer favorite Easy Rider (1969); or even The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) – movies in which “the identity crisis of the protagonist mirrors the identity crisis of the culture.” (Salles 2007)
For many, Thelma and Louise is the ultimate road movie, but there are other, less violent ones, in which characters are forced by circumstance to shed their old lives and build new ones piece by piece. One of my favorites is Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips) (2000) a gentle Italian comedy in which a wife is required to address her unimportant place in her family’s life when no one notices that she is left behind at a roadside services center; rather than contact her cheating, unappreciative, husband, she makes her way to Venice and starts over with rented room paid for by working in a flower shop.
My friend Helen and I fantasize often about doing this – on days when work grows too difficult, when the bills pile up, when no one appreciates us, when we feel surplus to requirements. That is when we pretend that we are going to seek new lives in the healing, golden, rays of the Pacific coast, like Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. We will be the middle-class, middle-aged, female versions of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
It will be a remarkable journey because, while close friends, and similar in many ways, we are polar opposite in others. Like Pangloss in Candide, Helen is an optimist who lives her life “cultivating her garden” in this slightly less than best of all possible worlds, while I had a long-ago boyfriend nickname me “the cynical girl.” We plan to go on our journey when we are closer to retirement age – when her children are out of college and my husband can find the toilet paper without requiring an intervention.
Our fantasy has developed a life of its own. We will drive cross-country in whoever’s car has less mileage on it, stopping in small towns and big cities, observing the opera of the streets, partaking of the local delicacies, and then blogging about it. When we reach California, we hope to open a Laundromat/coffee shop/independent bookstore in Hermosa Beach and have asparagus ferns and performance nights. We will read a lot.
Of course, we have no idea how any of these things might actually come to pass, and I doubt we’d even want them to, but it doesn’t matter; I like daydreaming about it. It warms cold winter days.