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