Chances are, if you're contemplating an adventurous American road trip down Route 66, the idea didn't just spring to your mind unbidden. The lure of the open road is inextricably interwoven with the American mythos. From books to TV, movies and music, there's no shortage of cultural productions originating in the U.S. that proclaim how thrilling it is to set out on your own down the highway towards points unknown.
Ever since the Joad family piled into their jalopy to high-tail it down the Mother Road out of Oklahoma in John Steinbeck's seminal Depression-era novel 'The Grapes of Wrath,' road trips have been part and parcel of the some of the most prominent cultural touchstones in America.
Here, we'll share a few of our favourite American cultural depictions of life on the road.
American road trip novels for avid readers
Steinbeck's opus is just the beginning. Road narratives served as the basis for some of the most revered books in American literature, and they're still popular today.
'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
While planning an American road trip can take a great deal of care and precision, Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac reminds us of the value of spontaneity. According to the publisher Penguin Random House, Keourac's wildly popular novel was first published in 1957, making the 35-year-old novelist a key figure in an emerging literary movement that prefigured many elements of the 1960s counterculture.
Packed to the brim with rambunctious depictions of jazz clubs, hitchhiking and aimless adventuring, the prose is lush, lively and inspired by the exhilarating improvisations of up-tempo bebop. It's been so popular among American readers for the past 60 years that it's almost a cliché. Still, if you haven't picked it up yet, we recommend finding out for yourself what all the fuss is about.
'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell
Looking for a more sardonic twist on the classic road trip archetype? Fast forward several decades from 'On the Road' to Sarah Vowell's 2005 nonfiction travelogue 'Assassination Vacation.' Here, the author recounts her journey across America in pursuit of political truths as she explores sites related to presidential assassinations and other macabre historical incidents. Throughout the book, Vowell retains a surprising sense of humour while regaling the reader about forgotten history and the morbid side of tourism. This wry read is enjoyable, and you're sure to learn things about America that you won't find in any other book — at least not one this funny!
Cinematic depictions of American road trips
Of course, the American road trip is also a go-to storyline for Hollywood filmmakers across the ages. Here are some of our top selections for your next movie night. Pick one of these flicks and envision your next road trip.
Sure, we're starting out with a children's movie, but can you blame us? It's 'Cars'! This classic animated film from Disney and Pixar follows world-class racer Lightning McQueen as he finds out exactly what's so special about Route 66.
According to Pixar, the character of Mater was modelled after an actual tow truck observed on the Mother Road. To create the fantastic characters we know and love today, the creative team drew upon the actual people they met during their travels along America's Main Street while gathering inspiration for the film. The movie's fictional setting, Radiator Springs, was an effort to bring to life the communities that still line Route 66 today while they harken back to a previous era.
This hidden gem might not be as well known as a slickly produced juggernaut like 'Cars,' but it's definitely worth your time. In his 1989 review of the Jonathan Wacks-directed film, Roger Ebert noted that 'The plot is not the point. What "Powwow Highway" does best is to create two unforgettable characters and give them some time together.' And what's more essential to any road trip than those two ingredients: people and time?
The movie follows two Northern Cheyenne friends on a roundabout road trip from Montana to New Mexico. Told through a distinctly Indigenous perspective, this story highlights a different side of America than you're likely to experience in contemporary blockbusters.
'Get on the Bus'
In 1996, venerated filmmaker Spike Lee turned his camera on a fictional story steeped in real events and rooted in history. 'Get on the Bus' depicts the journey of several Black men travelling by bus from Los Angeles to the District of Columbia in order to attend the Million Man March, a political demonstration that took place in 1995.
A contemporary review of the film in Variety said of the filmmaker, 'Lee engages his subject completely with both his head and heart, making it easy for the viewer to do the same.' With this film, you get an opportunity to appreciate Spike Lee's evolving cinematic talents in the 1990s while hearing from a diverse cross section of perspectives as the characters explore topics of racial and social justice that are still relevant today.
'The Straight Story'
Known more for his twisted, surrealistic depictions of contemporary American life than the tender-hearted family fare he explored in this Disney-produced film, David Lynch put together a surprisingly moving tale when he directed 'The Straight Story.'
The 1999 film depicts the true-life tale of Alvin Straight, an aging man who drove a riding lawn mower approximately 400 kilometres from his home in Iowa to visit a relative in Wisconsin who had fallen on very hard times. 'The Straight Story' reminds us of the importance of connection and the role of the road trip in bringing people together.
Feeling inspired? Write your own road trip story
At the end of the day, there's nothing like actually driving down the open road on an adventure of your own. If you're ready to explore Route 66 yourself, book a tour with us today.