I’ve gotta get out of here, the protagonist decides, for the first time or maybe the fiftieth, taking stock of his humdrum town, suburban conformity, whatever he thinks is getting him down. The particulars of the prison are irrelevant; it’s the escape that matters. Someone—a friend or a rival, maybe just his own nagging self-doubt—bets against him: you’ll never go through with it. You’re not the type. But what none of the characters realize is that he’s exactly the type: bored, unsatisfied, greedy for new territory, if not to take for his own then to explore as if it were. American.
This 4th of July saw the release of another variation on the same narrative: Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, a comedic flop featuring road movie veteran Susan Sarandon as Tammy’s unconvincingly old grandmother Pearl (she’s Susan Sarandon for god’s sake; of course she’s still “got it”). Down on her luck and fed up with life at the short end of the stick, McCarthy’s crass, immature Tammy decides once and for all to hit the road, determined to encounter the sort of vaguely articulated change that inspires so many departures of its kind. Pearl insists on coming along, and the two embark on a self-actualizing journey through the conventions of road flicks past.
Although it obtained the widest release, thanks to McCarthy’s popularity, Tammy’s wasn’t the only road trip to hit theaters this summer: in Road to Paloma, Jason Momoa flees the law across a romantic backdrop of the American West; meanwhile, in Iceland, two brothers search for their lost youth in the Sundance hit Land Ho! Last year it was We’re the Millers, Identity Thief, Scenic Route, Getaway, Philomena, and Nebraska that presented their takes on the genre, some adhering to its tropes more closely than others.
What gives the road movie (or, more broadly, the epic voyage) its staying power across cultures and time is an intrinsic narrative structure with a built-in beginning and end in the form of a starting point and destination. The characters’ objective is always to get somewhere or get away from somewhere else: either way, there’s your premise. As the travelers move from point A to point B, they’ll inevitably encounter different settings, people, and scenarios that seamlessly coalesce into the rising action of a plot, the journey’s sequential nature providing a natural transition between events. In this way, the physical setting of the story not only symbolizes but effectively becomes its substance.
Like Ulysses before her, Tammy undergoes the process of personal growth her bildungsroman requires. She sets out in search of change, and after a series of the usual mishaps—getting wild, getting lost, getting arrested—she finds it, discovering things about her grandmother and herself she may not have learned had she remained in her comfort zone. But in keeping with Great American Road Trip tradition, Tammy’s journey is framed more as an escape than as a quest. The importance of the destination—in this case, Niagara Falls—takes a back seat to the real purpose of the trip: freedom.
It would probably be going too far to argue that the cross-country road trip is the physical embodiment of the American dream, but it is quite literally a pursuit of happiness. We maintain a particular reverence for the road trip here in America, in part due to our beloved car culture, in part because it aligns so well with our nation’s ethos of rebellious individualism: for every man, the right to do and be whatever and whoever he wishes. To go where he chooses. To pack up and just get away from it all.
We were rebels from the start, building a nation on the promise of freedom that would become a fundamental part of our national identity, and which would transform itself through the years to accommodate historical change. From the lone ranger to James Dean to capitalism to suburban sprawl, the song remains the same: give me liberty or give me death. In the 19th century, this national consciousness took on a new character with the dawn of expansionism. According to the notion of manifest destiny, it became not just our right but our duty to spread the seeds of liberty westward across the continent. Thus began a century-long romance with the American frontier.
The Wild West represented everything our country stood for: self-reliance, economic opportunity, and, above all, the right to be left alone amid the desolate plains. Meanwhile, the figure of the cowboy perfectly embodied our ideal of the republican national subject: white, male, rugged, independent. Any obstacle (or, say, community of pre-existing inhabitants) he encountered was by default unpatriotic, an antagonistic Other whose perceived threat only bolstered the cowboy’s supremacy in the eyes of his adoring public. Frederick Jackson Turner would later theorize that American democracy itself was a product of the frontier mentality, and while its actual impact on our governmental institutions is debatable, its legacy would continue to influence our national identity long after its completion at century’s end.
Come 1930, that identity was in crisis. With millions of Americans suffering the kind of financial hardship that would have been unthinkable just a few years prior, suddenly it seemed naïve to go on believing in the ideal of meritocracy that had once been so reassuring.
Enter John Wayne. Romantic, formulaic, and just about as American as you can get, the B Westerns of classical Hollywood were the perfect medicine for a nation beset with grief and self-doubt. Anchored by a system of block booking that forced theaters to purchase their pictures in bulk, the major studios churned out second-rate genre films to an audience desperate for whatever escape they could find. In the Old West, hard work paid off, the good guys always won, and freedom (from reality, from poverty, from the country that had let everyone down) was only a little ways down the road.
“If everything isn’t black and white,” John Wayne famously quipped, “I say, ‘Why the hell not?'” In the same way that the rhetoric of American exceptionalism was used to justify imperial aggression, the mythology of the Western depicted an America that was always in the right. Nobody rooted for the victim when the bully made us look so good. So effective was the frontier narrative that politicians began applying it to any force that stood in America’s way, revising our history again and again to accommodate various political objectives. First, it was the Native Americans who had obstructed our supposed right to new land. For JFK, the New Frontier was an amalgam of the challenges the U.S. faced as it entered the 1960s. But when “cowboys and Indians” became “soldiers and Vietnamese,” no one was buying the analogy.
In Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, a 1969 film that helped popularize the road movie genre along with Bonnie and Clyde, two freewheeling hippies bike though the Southwest on their way to New Orleans. They have long hair and leather clothing, stay in a commune, criticize their government’s hypocrisy, and do it all in a haze of drugs, drugs, drugs. The Byrds’s “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” sings the gospel of nonconformity as they blaze through the open countryside. Local drunk George Hanson (a phenomenally creepy pre-celebrity Jack Nicholson) laments what used to be “a helluva good country,” noting a discrepancy between the values Americans supposedly endorse and the lifestyles they actually lead.
“They’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom,” he warns, “but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
The Western faced its decline at the turn of the ’70s, a time of widespread disillusionment when the establishment authority cowboys represented no longer appealed to a nation whose enthusiastic patriotism had given way to broken faith. The enemy, once a foreign (or native) threat, had become society itself. A decade earlier, Jack Kerouac designated the road a counterculture gateway to freedom and spiritual meaning. What better replacement for the dated Western than its equal and opposite inverse? The road picture upheld all the beloved values formerly associated with outlaw country, but instead of attributing freedom to the supremacy of the American way, it located this same freedom in rebellion against it.
As the road movie genre experienced its heyday during the ’70s, the road trip as a tradition came to symbolize the transcendence of everyday life. To hit the road was to rise above whatever bound you to the tragedy of conformity, to challenge the system by physically escaping it. Self-actualization took a more central thematic position in the road narrative than it had in the Western, an inner conflict that paralleled the identity crisis of the nation it represented. Rejecting the inequality of a man’s world, Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise find solace on the run, coming into their own as they break free from society’s oppressive rules. When Clyde whisks Bonnie away from her life as a waitress in rural Texas, he tells her it’s because she’s different. She wants more than other people ask of life. And isn’t that what Americans have always been fighting for: more?
By championing the same individual freedom that is so fundamental to our nation’s ethos, the road trip has ironically become a classic symbol of the very society it seeks to transcend. It endeavors to challenge our cult of escapist individualism (screw society’s needs; it’s my right to do what I want) with none other than escapist individualism (screw society’s ills; I’m busting out so I can do what I want). Perhaps this is why, for all our reverence, we can’t seem to take it quite as seriously as we once did. The majority of road movies produced today tend toward the comedic, opting to use its ready-made structure as a vehicle for gags and situational humor rather than anti-establishment social commentary. Tammy’s fourth-of-July tribute to American tradition almost feels like an afterthought, as if McCarthy remembered what the road trip stands for only once she’d exhausted it for funny material.
With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to escape one’s physical settings. And yet the Great American Road Trip no longer seems fully possible, if not for lack of opportunity than for the inauthenticity of a ritual that has lost its cultural relevance. While we can still travel cross-country, tour the same sights, to some extent even throw caution to the wind in a catharsis of irresponsibility, the road trip will always feel like a parody of its former self, always a throwback but never the real deal. Where once we could hop in a car and leave the world behind, nowadays a physical departure barely amounts to a glitch in the flow of the business day. Break your cell phone, delete your Facebook account; the grid is still there. There’s no such thing as getting away from it all anymore, not as long as you’re still here.
Last spring, my friends and I drove down to New Orleans in a big brown van. We reveled in the thrill of escape, the release we could still imagine were possible on the road. We saw things and had adventures we never would have had we remained in the suburbs. And we Instagrammed the whole trip.