Zelda and I had an English teacher that liked to say that there were a limited number of stories in the world, and everything we read was just a variation on one of them. (I never heard the whole theory, but I remember being skeptical at the time. I’m still skeptical, actually.) The quest narrative was one of the tropes she talked about, and it’s a story I’ve always liked: the hero’s journey, the overcoming of obstacles to find redemption or treasure or what have you. And for me, the ultimate journey — the ultimate quest — is an American road trip.
There’s something about car travel that is distinctly American. It’s the best way to see the country, and the only way to really get to know it as you travel on through, from mountains to prairies to skyscrapers and Cracker Barrels. There’s something lovely about passing the sign that says Welcome to *Insert State Here* with your hands triumphantly in the air, and there’s something equally wonderful about the fact that you can drive for two days and not leave Texas. Climate change be damned: The United States is a car country.
Now I’ve written on this blog before about my love of driving itself, but this is something more. Maybe this longing comes from my own inherent, indefatigable wanderlust. Something in me has always thrilled to the idea of a full tank of gas, a great song on the radio, and an open road stretching ahead, full of possibilities. (Even the driving part of the trip is negotiable: I can wax poetic on my love for train travel for pages on end.) Maybe it’s because I was inundated with imagery of Great American Journeys from a young age. So many of my adolescent favorites — in books, in film, on TV — take place on the road, and no matter the protagonist or the place, no matter how many times I reread or rewatch them, I always long to jump in the fictional car and ride along.
There’s the already discussed O Brother Where Art Thou?, in which George Clooney, as Ulysses Everett McGill, leads us on a hero’s journey through Depression-era Mississippi, pursuing a treasure in a car, and by foot, and on a train. Then there’s the disfigured Violet and the story told in her eponymous musical — a story of finding love for self and love for others on a bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma. There’s the tale of Q, Radar, Ben and Lacey (and soon, Angela!) driving a beat-up minivan up I-95 in search of a girl in a Paper Town who means something different to all of them. Not to mention Edward Bloom’s tall tales of Big Fish, and Thelma & Louise’s titular adventure…and those are just a few of my favorites.
This idea, this narrative, had an effect on me from a young age. I wanted my own adventure that — forgive a cliche — wasn’t necessarily about the destination, but the journey. I wanted the road, the tracks, the trail to guide me. I didn’t much care where I ended up when I was done.
As I got older, I made a few attempts to scratch the persistent itch. Zelda and I embarked on many shorter trips: up to Chicago under wintry blue skies, to Indianapolis in the heat of July for a super secret mission. I did four solo trips back and forth from Louisville to Baltimore for school, so many that I knew the locations of all the rest stops in West Virginia by heart. The closest I ever got to a true coming-of-age, epic quest was spring break of my senior year, which I spent on a trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains with two friends from school. We let the road guide us to fantastical attractions and beautiful overlooks, strange family connections with my travel companions, and a man called Turkey. It was a wonderful trip, one of my best, but with only ten days and limited funds, I didn’t quite get my fill.
At its heart, I think Zelda and Scout is a sort of virtual manifestation of my American wanderlust, allowing me to explore the nooks and crannies of this nation from the comfort of a Brooklyn apartment. My soul longs for the highways of Alabama and the back roads of the Smoky Mountains, sunrises over the Appalachians and sunsets along the Gulf of Mexico. Pictures and words don’t replace rolled down windows and the wind in my hair, while Zelda and I shout out the lyrics to On My Way (hers far more melodious than mine). But for the moment, this is what I’ve got. It’s a journey made up of people and stories, which I make from the comfort of my bed (and with some kickass soundtracks to boot, if I do say so myself).
And so I keep daydreaming of car karaoke and poetic reflection. And in the meantime, I’ll dive further into the books and films that led me to this life of longing in the first place, and cling to the secret hope that someday we’ll take this show on the road.