What the road can show us

The cross-country road trip has been celebrated in American literature and lore -- as a journey of national and self discovery.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Jessica Mendoza (l.) snaps a selfie with fellow traveler and writer Paula Rogo.

Jessica Mendoza and Paula Rogo went looking for America (click here to read their account) – the latest in a very long line of writers, singers, adventurers, and everyday folks who have hit the road to feel the country’s immense space, absorb its awesome landscape, meet its people, see the sights, chow down at diners and barbecue joints, and try to make sense of it all.

The road trip is a durable theme in literature, cinema, and music. As one of Jack Kerouac’s characters in “On the Road” frames the quest: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” John Steinbeck, Bill Bryson, William Least Heat-Moon, Cheryl Strayed, Simone de Beauvoir, Mark Twain, Alexis de Tocqueville, and many more writers have ventured forth and asked that question. “Thelma & Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Rain Man,” and the “Vacation” series (with the hapless Griswolds) are just a few of Hollywood’s road-trip movies. The ballads of Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and many more singers and songwriters always induce wanderlust and can also anchor a pleasant playlist for a cross-country car stereo.

With a hat tip to Joseph Campbell, all such journeys are both outward and inward, odysseys in the world and individual vision quests. But also and most important: They’re a blast – poring over a map, loading the car, riding open-eyed into the unknown, sniffing a morning breeze, savoring a golden sunset, and, as often as possible, letting serendipity take the wheel.

The most common conveyance, of course, is a car. I’ve done it by train. A Japanese journalist I know once took advantage of a quirky airline deal that enabled him to travel anywhere in the United States for a set price for a month. He wrote a madcap story describing how he would randomly choose cities to visit. When he was sleepy, he would take a long, overnight flight and freshen up in the lavatory. (You wouldn’t have wanted him as a seat mate around Day 30.)

Jessica and Paula pointed their car west for a practical reason: Jessica was taking up a new assignment on the West Coast for the Monitor. They also wanted to see the country. And they realized this was an opportunity for two Millennials to take the pulse of their generation. That would be impressionistic, they knew. “There’s no real representative,” says Jessica. “Every person has a different way of looking at the world.”

Like baby boomers, Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are destined by numbers to influence society for decades. They are already shifting political and cultural tides, as the Bernie Sanders campaign shows. In our cover story, you’ll see that while many Millennials want to improve the world, many also just want to improve their lives. Which is the way every generation has always been.
You don’t need to hit the road to discover that. But why miss the vistas, the people, the food, and the abiding sense of freedom and hope and beauty you could discover along the way?

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