Oprah Winfrey, Amanda Congdon and the New Golden Age of the Cross-Country Road Trip

Speaker's Corner: The coast-to-coast drive hasn't been this hot in 50 years. Michael Yessis explores why it's back -- and how travelers just might produce the next "On the Road" on the Internet.

10.17.06 | 7:01 AM ET

United States road mapThe 1940s and 1950s are generally considered the Golden Age of the American road trip, immortalized in Bobby Troup’s song and Jack Kerouac’s book and the actions and memories of adventurous souls like my dad, who roamed the country in his 1951 Ford and chronicled his trips by tracing his routes in blue felt pen on a U.S. map—that’s it above. Then came the rise of the interstate system and the chain-store, fast-food culture that sprung up around its edges. Conventional wisdom said these developments sucked a lot of the romance out of the road. And with the rise in cheap airfares and gas prices, the news just kept getting worse for the long-distance road trip. Sure, people still drove from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but they couldn’t help thinking that maybe they’d missed out on a special era.

At least that’s what I thought until not too long ago. Now I think we’re in the midst of the new Golden Age of the American cross-country road trip.

I started to believe this in the wake of my own cross-country drive this past summer. I rode with my dad. The trip marked my third time across the U.S. and his umteenth, but the first for either of us since 9/11, the day when, out of necessity, the road bubbled back to the surface in the American consciousness. With planes grounded, stranded travelers around the country were forced to hit the road. And when the planes started flying again, many fearful travelers chose to stay in their cars. In the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks, I remember reading stories about people out there with their wheels rolling on the blacktop, many who began to notice that, despite the so-called soulless superhighways, the road still offers mystery and discovery and, perhaps, a path to knowing the “real” America. On my latest trip, as my dad and I ate road food and befriended French tourists and shared stories along dirt roads in the shadow of Monument Valley, I was reminded of the same things.

We made the drive in my Civic Hybrid—another reason to believe in the strength of cross-country road tripping. The rise in fuel-efficient vehicles in the last few years bodes well for those who want to make the drive without spending too much money on gas or sending too many emissions into the atmosphere.

What solidifies this era as a new Golden Age, though, is that the reemergence of the road has happily coincided with the ability to tell dynamic stories on the Web. Now instead of writing a book like Kerouac or marking those lines in felt-tip on a map, travelers can use video and flash and Google Maps and blogs and audio to interpret what they’ve seen on the road and bring it to life in unexpected ways. In the age of the Web, the road trip has arrived as an artistic statement.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the cross country stories people are telling on the Web are going to be good, or that something with the impact of “On the Road” will come out of this era. But I wouldn’t bet against it. I’ve seen a lot of road-trip chronicles on the Web in recent months, and many of them show off the medium’s incredible possibilities. Check out these seven sites:

* Taken on the Road: American Mile Markers. Matt Frondorf drove from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate Bridge, clicking a photo every mile of his trip. Here’s why he did it.

* This guy drove across from Los Angeles to New York City and captured the entire journey in time-lapse video:

* Littourati. Michael Hess, who has embarked on a virtual cross-country trip of sorts, plotting Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” with Google Maps. Recently we posted an interview with Hess.

* AmandaAcrossAmerica. Amanda Congdon of Rocketboom fame is currently traveling across the country in a hybrid vehicle on a trip sponsored by environmental group, blogging and vlogging about her encounters with an amazing cross-section of America. Two recent videos include an interview with Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and 12 minutes of night falling in the Smokey Mountains.

* Hitch 50. Scotty and Fiddy are currently attempting to hitchhike to every state capital in all 50 states, and they’re chronicling it all through text, maps, photos and videos. Here’s their trailer:

* The State We’re In. Singer-songwriter Jont and filmmaker Dave Depares recently used MySpace to coordinate a cross-country project: Jont performed in the homes of people he met through MySpace, then vlogged the events and their travels.

* And, of course, don’t forget Oprah’s cross-country trip and multimedia extravaganza. You know when Oprah and her gal-pal Gayle are involved in a movement, it has reached critical mass.

I have a feeling I’m only scratching the surface of the great cross-country stories out there. Seen any other interesting cross-country chronicles on the Web? Know who could be the Kerouac of the Internet age? Send me an .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or add to this list by posting a link in the comments.


9 Comments for Oprah Winfrey, Amanda Congdon and the New Golden Age of the Cross-Country Road Trip

justin 10.17.06 | 9:52 AM ET

Dean Karnazes is running 50 marathons in all 50 states in 50 days.  He’s on state 30 today.  Pretty amazing.


Jerry Haines 10.17.06 | 10:29 AM ET

Having just completed my own cross-country (Arlington, Va. to Portland, Ore.) trip,  I’m seriously considereing a project of eating homemade pie in diners of all 50 states.  Or meatloaf. 

Of course,  Jane and Michael Stern have been doing essentially that for years, bless their ever-lovin’, chicken-fried souls.

mike 10.17.06 | 10:45 AM ET

Go with the pie, Jerry. Go with the pie.

John Ur 10.18.06 | 11:31 PM ET

I took my own cross-country trip last year with a girl I met about two months prior to leaving. No, we did not get married, thanks for asking.

But I wanted to tell you about Christian McEvoy who is running across the country to raise money for cancer.
Check him out at http://coasttocoastrun.org/

Michael Yessis 10.19.06 | 10:28 PM ET

A couple more interesting road trip projects brought to my attention this week:

Road Trip Nation
* The PBS series has a solid Web presence

Road Trip—a film
* Sébastien Chevrel’s film is a cross between Matt Frondorf photo project and the timelapse video. From his Web site: “Road Trip is a short film composed of 12,397 pictures taken automatically from the back seat of a car while driving accross America from Portland, Oregon to New Hampshire.”

Kelsey 10.22.06 | 9:45 PM ET


I appreciate the argument for the “New Golden Age” of the Road Trip, but I’d like to respectfully disagree.

In the 40’s and 50’s people drove across country for many of the reasons we drive across country today: to explore, to discover, to move, to runaway.  But they didn’t drive across country to blog, to podcast, to vodcast. To me, this obsession to document tarnishes our age of the road trip. 

Picturing your dad with a felt marker squiggling along the miles on his map is Golden.  Seeing someone’s road trip plotted by google maps on their website is Bronze at best.

I’m not condemning our need to document and make available ourselves and our experiences to the masses. (Personally, I rarely travel unless there is a story in it for me that I am willing to share with others. Stories help put food on my table.) I just think that our motivation to Road Trip and record seems less pure than our fathers’.

Of course, nostalgia for the “good ole’ days” probably shapes my opinion.  Maybe in 40 years we’ll scratch our gray beards, download our Road Trip vodcast into our BrainPal computers, and long for the Road Trips of our youth.

mike 10.24.06 | 10:50 PM ET


Thanks for the thoughtful response, and point taken. Still, I like to think that the tools to record trips—video, audio, blogs—have become so pervasive and easy to use, it’s pretty much second nature for people to chronicle their travels in a dynamic way. It’s all becoming a large part of the way a lot of people live today, and, in a sense, not really too much of a stretch from using a felt pen to draw lines. Same sentiment, different tool. For me, the technology doesn’t necessarily have to diminish the road trip. And if people use vlogging and blogging as an excuse to travel, I’m okay with that. I like the idea of someone hitting the road for a Web project, and realizing the glory of travel somewhere along the way.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to watch/read/listen to everything produced. I’m sure a lot of it will be mediocre at best. But I do think someone, somewhere, will be able to use this technology to develop a great piece of art. And, yeah, I’ll be ready to download it into my BrainPal.

mike 11.06.06 | 9:25 AM ET

Here’s another: http://www.Surfing50States.com.

And here’s a quick interview with them.

lalo kikiriki 07.17.08 | 11:35 PM ET

Try the blogspot “Travels ithout Charlie” for a replication of Steinbeck’s road trip
To paraphrase Edgar Varese, “The present day cross-country adventure refuses to die!”

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