DRIVING DOWN FROM MEMPHIS
This article was written for a catalogue advertising an amercian clothing brand in Europe. I had to write in an Amercian accent. I did a lot of work for them. And quite frankly I liked the content.
There’s a moment of aching anticipation just before you start the engine when your whole body knows that until you’re moving you can never be satisfied. You turn the key, move the stick to drive, and there’s a slight jolt as the gear engages and the weight of the car strains forward against the breaks… If nothing else were to happen at this point, the tension would be unbearable. Thankfully, you put your foot on the gas, the car rolls, and dry air flows in through the window onto your face.
The earliest record of a road trip dates from the time of the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics were found that roughly translate as follows: “He drove down from Memphis in his chariot through the night.” Now, whether or not this is true, the point remains the same: all you need for a road trip is a vehicle, a road to drive down, and some kind of romantic notion that this would be a pleasurable thing to do. The fact that the first documented road trip took place during the reign of Ramesses II is more likely a reflection of when writing was invented (by the god Thoth) than the road trip itself, which has probably existed since the invention of the road.
And the city disappears in the rear-view mirror, the horizon opens out, always one step ahead, and you relax behind the wheel. The hypnotic drone of the engine smoothes the ripples of your thoughts. And the car rolls on as you watch the world unfold from your seat.
By the end of the 19th century, oil was already the most valuable commodity traded on the world market due to the demand for kerosene, which was used mainly for lighting. But the desirability of the car coupled with its new found accessibility, brought it into lives of everyday people and the need for oil seeped into the souls of men.
As you drive you’ll notice that the West is a scantly populated place. There are nonetheless marks of man’s impact on the land; industry, minerals and oil, agriculture, and of course facilities for the communities living there; their wooden buildings hugging the side of the road or scattered around a junction. The geographical position of inhabited areas owes much to the natural resources that were extracted from the ground. As mining operations sprang up so did towns. The bigger the operation; the bigger the town. The flipside of the coin is that as the natural resources dried up so too did the desire to live in these remote settlements and people moved on leaving deserted streets, a store, a gas station, the curious gaze from a window at the sound of a passing car. In some places there’s hardly any sign of life; others have been abandoned all together.
The singular identity of the inventor of the car is disputed, but we do know that in 1885 Karl Benz built the first vehicle powered by a four-stroke petroleum engine. For years there was competition between steam, gasoline, and hydrogen for powering these early automobiles, but in 1914 Henry Ford put his Model T into production and gasoline became the fuel of choice for the fast-expanding population of road users.
Stopping is just as much part of the road trip as moving. There’s something satisfying about the crunch of tires as you leave the warm tarmac to stop and take in the view, or find refuge in any of the small ventures dotted along the way to cash in on the needs of the modern nomad; diners, gas stations and motels all designed to be visible from the road and let you drive your car right up to the thing you need. These places are peopled with a curious mixture of working locals, professional road users and of course people like you; just driving for the sake of driving, savoring the flavors of the road.
The American road trip came into its own in the late 1940s. Obviously, industrial, technological and economic development have played their parts making these journeys accessible, but the roots of the romance attached reach far deeper. From early childhood our heads are filled with stories of traveling people: nomads and gypsies, and we are delighted by circuses and fairs. Life on the road contains a notion of glamour, and curiosity for the unknown. There are also parallels with the natural world, as with Native Americans moving seasonally across the plains following the migration of buffalo. Travelers are story tellers and literature and cinema have plentiful examples; ‘On The Road’ and ‘Easy Rider’ tell tales of journeys by road and in them are sown the seeds of our longing for movement. The road trip is a persistent element of human culture.
The first traffic signals were installed in 1868 outside the Houses of Parliament in London and resembled the railway signals of the time, using mechanical semaphore arms and red and green gas lamps for night use. They didn’t last long. On January 2 1869 they exploded causing injury to the police officer operating them. The first electric traffic lights were installed in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio. The colors (red, yellow and green) were borrowed from the international code for the shipping navigation.
The car is your space. It holds you in and protects you. There is something primal about the comfort provided by the road. But the very fact that its purpose is to take you from A to B gives you contact with the world you see. Distant mountains, the seemingly endless space, and traces of human activity punctuating the expanse can leave you breathless. Contained you may be, but you have become part of your surroundings. It’s an inspiring and sensual way to see America. What do you see? What do you taste, smell, feel?
The first coast-to-coast car journey in the United States was made by H. Nelson Jackson, Sewall Crocker and a dog called Bud in 1903. Traveling between San Francisco and New-York took 63 days and cost $8000. The obvious purpose of this and other trips is to connect to new places and live new experiences. Equally though, the relationship between man and the road is an internal search. In certain traditions the road trip forms part of a right of passage. In many aboriginal cultures the solo journey is the first test of adulthood.
But for some people the call of the road is simply an instinct they can’t resist. There is innate value placed on the notion that we should be able to fly where we please and live under the rule of no man. The road trip is perhaps an expression of humanity’s persistent quest for freedom. And the shared value of freedom has existed since people first started recording their thoughts (remember Ramesses II?). With an almost religious vigor we have been searching and struggling for this intangible quality, always positive, always necessary, but never clearly defined.
For such a universally desired objective one would think the meaning of the word freedom to be clear and long established. But this is not the case. One man’s freedom is another’s confinement. Freedom is an abstract concept and seemingly different for everyone whose mind it crosses.
Where you start from, and your destination, are of little importance. There is no map for this journey and there is no instruction manual (although in the 21st century there are guide books, the internet and GPS units to help you should you wish). However, since the dawn of the road movie, music has played an increasingly important role and become almost as much a convention as the road trip itself. Rock music, country and western, jazz and soul all have significant roles, but nothing is excluded. It’s a question of taste, as are the clothes you wear. There are of course practical considerations; you need to be comfortable; not too cold at night or hot in the day, you also need fabrics that won’t irritate you over long distances. Stretching your muscles after long hours of travel is like a delicacy, and there is little more pleasing than knowing there’s a shower waiting for you and a fresh shirt in your suit case. Your clothes share your adventure like a faithful traveling companion. Your outfit is also how you present yourself to those you encounter, a statement of attitude, and forms part of how you communicate. But perhaps even more than this, the things you choose to wear are a gesture to yourself, defining who you are and who you would like to be; reminding you of your desires and the things you hold precious.
Whatever your motivation for taking a car and driving out across long miles, whatever your place in history, whether you travel alone or share this most intimate of moments, whether you do it regularly or it is a one off experience, in search of enlightenment or light entertainment, an act of decadence or one of connecting to the planet on which we live, whether to collect memories or to escape them… there is something universally attractive about road trips, like living a dream. Everybody who has done this has shared a very basic pleasure: the growl of tires, the low purr of the engine, the space, and the sky, it’s a window onto a picture-postcard America, engraving on to the memory, not just images, but the spirit of the West.