Is there any idea more romanticized, more universally longed for in cubicles and subway cars, more frequently dreamed of in dusty sepia tones, than the idea of the open road? Picture that one-lane highway stretching towards a pink horizon in a red rock desert. Throw a steel guitar riff over that daydream of the Rocky Mountains rolling by outside your window. Hand out the window, riding up and down on the wind. You know what I mean.
The idea of jamming one’s entire life into the back of rumbling SUV and blasting out into the vast expanse of the American Highway system is enough to make any Average Joe feel like Cool Hand Luke. But wait, wasn’t Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman’s character in “Cool Hand Luke) in prison? Well, yes, he was. But, nonetheless, that man was free.
The open road promises freedom, especially if we’re packing up and leaving, pressing on to something new. This is what Jack Kerouac was talking about when he referred to “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” And what could seem more true? We dream of open spaces. We dream of immensity, room to ramble and sow new seeds. We dream of doors that open up to everything.
I’m writing this because this afternoon, I’m doing exactly this. My car is stuffed to the gills and my old bedroom is a vacant lot, save a couple soda stains on the carpet and baseball trophies on the dresser. I’m making that 2,000 mile trek across the continental divide, through the Rockies and the Mojave Desert, all the way to Pacific. Manifest destiny, circa 2013.
Reading those last two sentences, you probably had one of two reactions: 1.) You got chills, wished that you could be doing the same, and got a little bit jealous. Or, 2.) You rolled your eyes and said, “Well aren’t you cool, Mr. Supertramp. Get over yourself.”
Both reactions are valid. And to be quite honest, I have to admit that I probably would have said the latter. In the short course of my life, I’ve romanticized this type of trip a million times, and done it twice. Out to California and back again, all on the open road.
And twice is enough to know it’s hard to see things in that sepia tone when it’s dark and you’ve been driving for 16 hours. Twice is enough to know that after the first three hours of screaming along to, “Call me the Breeze,” by Lynard Skynard on repeat, you get tired of singing. Twice is enough to know that stepping into an open door means closing one on the way out. There’s a moment on the open road when the dreamy stupor of the unknown begins to dwindle, and you think of who you’ve left behind.
Twice is enough to know that freedom isn’t physical.
But as I sit here today, two hours from my departure, I still feel that twitch. My vision begins to tint. There’s a soundtrack in my head, and there are lots of steel guitars and gravelly voices. Call me the breeze, I keep blowin’ down the road, I start to mumble. And what good would come to stifle these ideas? Driving through the Rockies is exhilarating, the diversity of the Western American landscape is incredible, and new horizons are beautiful things. But so are walls, cubicles, and kitchen tables; so are nine-to-five’s and barbecues.
So, as I hit that stretch of open highway today, I won’t stop “dreaming in the immensity of it.” But I do so with trepidation. I do so knowing that the open road isn’t beautiful because it’s photogenic. It’s not that it’s the truest form of freedom. The open road is beautiful precisely because it leads to something new, and because it still leads back to something old.