by Tom Bentley
He went out looking for the American character, and became one himself.
Long ago, when I was still in high school, I took a road trip from Southern California with three of my best friends to Las Vegas. Naturally, we were too callow to gamble, drink or cavort like the stylish rogues that we fancied ourselves to be, but that was less the point than that delicious sense of unfettered mobility: we craved that parentless, wind-in-the-hair feeling of adventure, danger and possibility, bestowed only to those without a calendar or an appointment book.
We didn’t know enough about wickedness to do anything genuinely sordid, but we all felt that the three days and night’s worth of casino gawking, buffet binging and sunburned swimming had a resonance of independence, of manly brio and camaraderie, and we left Vegas in the early afternoon under a head of companionable steam.
Sadly, our old VW bus required oil, not steam, for optimal transport, and the substantial leak it sprung midway through the trip home promised to leave it—and possibly us—to a lonely, sun-baked desert fate. The bus’s owner, Marty, had a couple of quarts of oil, but the engine was spewing so voluminously that it was clear we wouldn’t make it to any mechanic’s haven, that being many hot miles away. But chance favors the scheme born of desperation: my friend Tom spotted a big metal trash can lid in the weedy scrub by the side of the road, and within minutes he had cleverly wired it up under the VW’s engine so that it caught all the falling oil. We still had to stop every twenty miles or so and pour the captured oil back in, but we were able to limp home without suffering the deepest of embarrassments: calling our parents for rescue.
That trip, mirrored across this vast country by countless journeys of people past and present, is the quintessence of the American character. It marks the kind of good-natured restlessness native to Americans: we came, we looked around, we kept going to look some more. The ostensible reason that brought us to this country in the first place, a quarrel with the spiritual fetters of Mother England, is of a piece with this broad impatience: our forebears needed room to move, religiously and otherwise. Great Britain gave us cramps.
That kind of crazylegs imperative is seen throughout our history; though we did cluster in some of our early metropolises like Boston and New York, it was mostly because there was access to a better quality and quantity of mutton and beer. For a wide swath of the populace, seeing what was over the next hill—and the next after that—was the thing. Reading the journals of Lewis and Clark, you can hear the yipping cries of discovery and delight behind every dry cataloging of fauna or tilt of topography. They were on a road trip, pure and simple. The siren song of adventure, the new, the unseen pushed them, government commission be damned.
Huck Finn, Mark Twain’s greatest invention, was a kindred soul with Twain himself. Huck’s long, meandering wanderlust down the Mississippi mirrored Twain’s westward gallop, a flight to find fame and fortune, but more tellingly, soul. Twain found the West big enough to hold the yarns that first made him famous. He found jumping frogs, obtuse rams and wily blue jays, but mostly he found his writer’s voice. The call of the road (and the misfortune of his multiple crushed fortunes over the years) tingled in Twain’s ears most of his days. His accounts of his European and Asian travels are as marvelous as they are pointed. But no matter the miles he put on his pen, his voice remained uniquely American: generous, judgmental, humorous and individual.
Years later, the same mad thirst to fill his lungs with highway air and his eyes with the syncopated jazz of roadway improvisation (which is at the heart of travel) pushed Jack Kerouac to hit the highway. Famously, as though channeling a caffeinated muse, he drove a fit of manic typing to record all of the phantasmagorical impressions and distillations of his multiple coast-to-coast trips onto a single, connected roll of typing paper, a great gushing of earth and spirit later published as On the Road . The scroll (which recently made a traveling exhibition of its own around the country) has something of a religious flavor about it—a divine revelation of Beat dogma.
Kerouac partnered with Neal Cassady, the legendary jive-talking, womanizing, behind-the-wheel sermonizing magician for many legs of his continental cruises, and despite all the trouble and heartbreak the two caused in their various romantic, financial and wine-drenched entanglements, they both shared another slant so very American—a kind of deep optimism, a feeling that it’s all gonna turn out OK, and what the hell, let’s drive as close to that cliff as we can—it’s the only way to see the view.
His strokes were less like automotive pistons than those of an artist’s brush, but Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is colored with characters displaying the same hues of innocent optimism (combined with a telling ability to ignore—or at least sidestep—deep cynicism). In that work, Fitzgerald speaks of the ability to see the “fresh green breast of the New World,” in all its newness and vitality. There is something essentially American in those words, and contained within the novel’s pages are the sinews of that reflex to move, to want more, to stretch the imagination outward—not so much from a sense of dissatisfaction as from appetite.
I once hitchhiked from Seattle to Los Angeles barefoot, back in the days when I thought that wearing shoes was a sign of crippling conformity. But it wasn’t so much my feet wanting to be free as the whole of me. Traveling by thumb can be more colorful than by car. In a moment’s time, you are catapulted from your road cocoon into another car capsule, in essence, another mobile world. But being the driver might be better yet; you control the pacing, the road rhythms, and most of the moods. The first time I drove across the country I was alone, so every decision seemed powerfully mine: when to stop, when to go, when to blast through the Dakotas at speed or slow down for days of beignets and coffee in New Orleans. Of course, I had to stop by Vegas on that trip as well, and this time I could legitimately lay my money down—and as it turned out, leave it there. But no matter, the play’s the thing.
Trying to define the American character seems to be a challenge as big as the country’s mountains, as broad as its plains. And catching the uniquely American ethos—its quirkiness, its blindnesses, its big-heartedness—with something so evanescent as language is tough as well. Some things can’t quite be pinned down, but you can see and hear something of that spirit in our stories, whether set in print or on canvas by our great artists, or told across the back fence on an impossibly warm Iowa summer night.
So let’s end this piece with another story, one of mine: not a long time after our Vegas trip, my brother and I and one of our mutual friends talked deep into the night about stealing my parents’ car and getting away from school, rules, and all the cruel oppressions of youth. At first we were just speculating on how good it would be, the great open road and all its chances, but as the hours went by, we convinced ourselves that we were actually going to do it, and that very night. We counted up how much money we had, stuffed some clothes in a bag, and even got the keys while we sat in the car working out the final details.
But it became later and later, and we got sleepier and sleepier. Finally, we decided to call it off for that night, and wait for the next. But we went to the movies the next night, and by the next, the dream had faded a bit. We brought it up a few times over the course of the summer, but it had become more of a “Remember the time when we almost” rather than a “Remember when we…”
But the moments when we were working it out, while the conceptual quest gained momentum—we were rooted, however childishly, in bedrock America: a kind of devil-may-care enthusiasm conjoined with naiveté, a willingness to dream big, an urge to get out there, roll down the window, eat some country. The country’s engine—an open heart—still purrs, and seems always ready to be put in gear.
Tom Bentley lives in the hinterlands of Watsonville, California, surrounded by strawberry fields and the occasional Airstream. He has run a writing and editing business out of his home for the past decade, giving him ample time to vacuum. See his lurid web site confessions at www.tombentley.com. “The American Engine” won the Silver Award for Travel and Transformation in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.