I Love the Open Road: Outsider Life

I love the open road 
and all that it suggests 
wheelwagon dust 
weeds and infidelities 
and always swore our love 
never questioned why 
in a wooden house 
immovable and silent 

-The Smashing Pumpkins, “Soot and Stars”

Once in my life, I believed that the only real way to understand the world was to get out there and travel it, and I didn’t (and don’t) mean that in a tourist way. I mean packing up a car and getting out there to see as many places as you can. For awhile, I thought about living in this mode: driving cross-country back and forth as I wrote and worked odd jobs. The romanticism of the idea got me the most, I think. Of course, I was also young at the time and didn’t feel I had much to lose. I also had a loose network of friends across the country whom I knew I could count on to help me along the way. I’ve changed a lot since then, and I’m not sure that the prescription in the first sentence is entirely accurate any longer, but the idea is still enchanting to me.

Something in my bones drew me to the road – and it still does. It’s hard to explain to those folks who don’t feel the same pull. You can, however, send those folks to some of the great road books and movies, like On the Road and Easy Rider to get some feel for what attracts us. The sense of freedom drew me in, and they talk about that some in Easy Rider. If freedom really is about having nothing left to lose, then I had a near-perfect freedom at various points in my life. The pull of the road seized me the strongest during those periods.

My fascination began with a road trip to Indianapolis in the latter part of 1994 to see the Colts play. Imagine four guys packed in a van making their way from the western side of Virginia to Indiana, via Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. Something about the road during that trip called to me. There was a beauty and poetry to being a stranger in a city, where so many people had their roots. Moving from city to city also held a peculiar fascination, seeing the succession of peoples’ lives in such a short period from an outsider’s perspective. I tried to imagine what it was like to live a day-to-day existence in that city.

When we stopped, I felt a momentary anchor in that city, something closer to what those people experienced, but I also had the option to move along quite easily. In writing this up, I realize that I watched these peoples’ lives from the outside, beating on the glass to attempt to be part of their experience, but could never 100% be part of it. Something about that has always appealed to me, as it’s a physical mirror of my own life experience of standing out on the outside.

I enjoyed the football game, but I ended up spending a lot of time at the motel as the other guys wanted to go to a strip club and I was too young. I worked on a story, long-forgotten by now, and tried to ignore it when my roommate brought back a stripper in the middle of the night.

Another road experience came in late 1995, when two of my online friends put together a road trip from…well, one came from England to Northern New York, and they drove down to Virginia to pick me up. We followed almost the same route as before, stopping on the way to Illinois. Here is what I wrote a few years ago in another blog:

“The road trip happened in early December; #### and #### showed up as my shift at Burger King (where I worked full-time while attending James Madison) was ending, in the early evening…before leaving early the next morning.

The trip itself was a blast, and just what my depressed self needed. We stopped mid-morning in Lexington, Kentucky, to meet ######. The city itself was beautiful, still surrounded by the colors of a fading autumn, the orange and red accenting the dominant use of brick buildings in the downtown area. (She) was attending Kentucky, and we eventually managed to find her dorm room after a great deal of debate and haggling with the guardian at the front door. 

I was stunned to finally meet her; I had seen pictures of her, of course, but nothing could have prepared me for the red-headed beauty that stood before us. The best thing about her was that her sense of humor and intelligence carried over from our online conversations, and our real-life chemistry was even better than online. She admitted that I was quite different than the “pale nerd in a dark room” that she had initially envisioned when we first met, and I think she felt a little of the same things that I did. By the time we drove off, I wondered if I wasn’t going to spend time with the wrong Lindsay, but there was nothing to be done about that.”

I won’t go into too many more details as that’s not the point of this entry. I wanted to share that, though, because as awkward and stilted as that prose may be, it, too, captures the essence of my experience during that trip. Endless potential. Doors opening and then closing just as quickly. Living on the emotional quick. My love of the road grew.

That is what the best road literature and films capture: that endless potential, but a fleeting one. For some reason, it brings to mind the sound of a train whistle in the dead of night, calling out to no one. There’s a bittersweet element inherent in watching those opportunities present and then pass away, a microcosm of life itself. I think On the Road and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test captured this the best: both are about being who you are from moment to moment while experiencing something larger than yourself (in my case, those cities and the lives that they represented).

I write about this both as something of a memoir and as an idea for writing. You may not need to write a road book per se, as none of my books are entirely about that experience, but I think that you can capture these emotions, to show your characters as outsiders observing and moving in a bigger world. The Corridors of the Dead is all about this, and I think most of my writing is about that feeling in general: discovering yourself in the midst of a world that’s much larger than you once thought. I’ll talk some more about this soon.

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  1. Road trips have also been a big intrigue for me too. I think it’s because I often go on a road trip with my parents and brother from California to Minnesota to visit my grandparents just about every summer.

    Funny part is, is that both of my novels unintentionally (I’m a pantser writer) have a road trip in them. The first third or so of Drift is a road trip. And the second upcoming novel will be a journey from New York to New Mexico.

    And no, the prose wasn’t awkward at all. Just another reminder that you might want to think about writing a memoir. Don’t worry about what others think of what you wrote. Let them decide for themselves.

  2. Awesome post. I have had a post like this in the works for months, except really all I have so far is a similar sentiment and that line from Raising Arizona: “I love to drive.”

    You’ve put some nice words to describe that feeling of freedom. As you probably saw, I have a karaoke travelogue on some back burner somewhere. Spent about two months on the road for that stint, from Utah to New York, through Canada, over to Portland, to Hawaii and back. And ala Travels with Charley, at one point in my life I sold everything I couldn’t fit into a slide-in camper and left Montana with no real plans.

    And again, we find another similarity between us. Oh, and I also liked your short excerpt from that trip. Last paragraph really drew me in. I think if you wanted to, you could use the old school first initial followed by a dash if you don’t want to use actual names. That way your readers can still distinguish characters without knowing whom they actually are.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

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