In 1937, in the midst of the Depression, a young Nebraskan named Joycolon Knapp decided to hit the road with her family; her journal held her photos, notes, and an expense and mileage log she kept while vistiing places like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon (link via Portage). In 1927, after graduating from Cornell, Japanese native Kiyooka Eiichi decided that he would take a forty-day car trip from Ithaca to San Francisco (where he would catch a ship to Tokyo); in 1989, Jeffrey Rouff came across a reference to Kiyooka’s trip (link via Dan at MeFi), tracked him down at Keiõ University, and obtained a copy of the home movie he took, and interviewed him. In an interview with Rouff, Kiyooka said, "The usual way would have been to take a train in Ithaca to San Francisco, but going across the country by train looked like a very stupid thing to do"; rail-jumpers, both modern (link via BoingBoing and classic, would disagree, but I’m not sure I would. America is perhaps best experienced by road trip. I’ve driven across the country twice; there’s a lot of great, kooky stuff out there on the road, but the chief appeal to me is experiencing just how big the United States is. The Grand Tour of the Continent allowed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English aristocrats could gain a veneer of worldly experience slowly acclimate themselves to the world of adult society (and, for the men, that of European brothels), but America has the breadth of a continent within its borders. Distance allowed Roger Williams to start anew; Fitzgerald to the contrary, America used to be all about second acts, as the country’s criminals, failures, and no-hopes drifted West, some of them to thrive.
In the earliest study of the American character that I’ve read, Democracy in America, du Tocqueville writes that
in the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; ….and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness.
But du Tocqueville was a French nobleman and didn’t quite get it; I think Fredric Jackson Turner understood the lure of the open road more; in 1903, a decade after he declared the American frontier closed, he wrote that "[l]ong after the frontier period of a particular region of the United States has passed away, the conception of society, the ideals and aspirations which it produced, persist in the minds of the people…. If, indeed, we ourselves were not pioneers, our fathers were, and the inherited ways of looking at things, the fundamental assumptions of the American people, have all been shaped by this experience of democracy on its westward march."
Japanese Buddhists have the Shikoku pilgrimage; Islam has the hajj, Europe had a medieval pilgrim culture that sent thousands to Rome, the Holy Lands, and Santiago de Compostela (as well as more local venerated sites). Ibn Battuta visited fourteenth century Africa, Asia, and Europe, but modern parallels seem to require global travel. There are a half-dozen separate museums (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) devoted to a single highway, Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica and was the conduit for thousands of Dust Bowl refugees making their way to California and the hope of a better life, but instead of the pilgrimage and the waystation, we have the road trip and motel. Professor Kiyooka knew it in 1927; the way you understand American mythology is to hit the road.