Amanda Huggins talks about our endless love affair with The Road Trip
It seems we never tire of road trip stories, whether they come in the form of novels or non-fiction, songs or films.
Road trip novels can include many different elements: high stake adventures in a changing, often alien landscape; unusual modes of transport and the resulting setbacks encountered while travelling; stories of all the people the protagonist meets on the way. And – most importantly – they are about everything the trip illuminates, the way it influences and changes the inner lives of the characters.
Novels about cross-country journeys can be set anywhere in the world, however, I think we’d all agree that nothing is more quintessentially American than the idea of a road trip. We expect the evenings to be sultry and the days to be bright; there will be dust, desert, endless horizons, faded diners and last-chance motels. And there will always be music blasting out across the empty miles – preferably Bruce Springsteen. It’s an American rite of passage, as well as a perfect metaphor for the journey through life itself.
I didn’t choose to set Crossing the Lines in the United States for that reason though. The novella is based on my Costa award-winning story, ‘Red’, which is set in an imaginary landscape a thousand miles west of the New Jersey shoreline. Readers wanted to know what happened to fifteen-year-old Mollie after the story ended, and so I wrote Crossing the Lines to find out. And that’s when the journey began . . .
Road trips don’t necessarily start out with a final destination in mind – in fact that’s one thing which is often surplus to requirements – but Mollie’s journey in Crossing the Lines has a definite goal. She knows exactly where she wants to be – where she needs to be – and it isn’t a pleasure trip. Mollie’s hand is forced, and she finds herself both running away from something and running towards something.
The road trip is so popular, and has captured our imaginations so vividly over the years, that it is a favourite subject for ‘top ten’ lists. The coming-of-age road trip novel even merits a category of its own on Goodreads.
The books which started it all for me were (predictably!) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel On the Road. Like many people, I read On the Road as a teenager, and I remember being captivated by its breathless exuberance, its hedonistic exploration of personal freedom, fuelling my desire to undertake a similar trip.
Of course, the best road trip novels are not always frivolous or fun. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, although relentlessly bleak, remains firmly in my personal top ten. It tells the story of a father and son walking alone across a post-apocalyptic America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. The circumstances leading up to the world’s current plight are left to our imaginations, but we don’t have to stretch them too far. As Tom Gatti said in his review in The Times, it is a novel of “terrible beauty”.
Some journeys are quieter, yet just as captivating, such as Steinbeck’s autobiographical Travels with Charley. In 1962 he set out to re-discover the land he had been writing about his whole life, reflecting on what it is to be American and the particular form of loneliness which can be found in a great deal of American writing. Another favourite – again autobiographical – is Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, an epic 100,000km trip around the world on a motorbike.
I also love the cult classic The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which became the film Carol – leading me neatly on to my favourite road trip movies. The first one I remember watching is Two-Lane Blacktop in the mid-seventies. I was a teenager at the time, left alone in the house one evening, and this film, which I’d never heard of, was being shown on the TV. I think it stuck in my mind mainly because I fell a little bit in love with James Taylor! Badlands also makes the list, plus Thelma and Louise and As Good as It Gets. A recent discovery is The Straight Story – a fabulous film about a man who makes a journey on his lawnmower to put things right with his ill brother – based on true-life events. And bringing the list right up to date, Nomadland and Green Book both deserve a mention too.
But I can’t leave without adding a top ten American playlist for Crossing the Lines. As the novella is set in 1979, eight of the songs I’ve chosen are from the sixties and seventies, but I have snuck in two recent Bruce Springsteen songs as well, because they are so apt. There are no surprises here though – these songs probably feature on every compilation of road trip music since the invention of the cassette player!