I ran away, the first time, when I was 7. It wasn’t because my parents were mean, or because my mother had taken away a cherished toy or grounded me. The night before, my brother Chuck and I had watched a movie where the child protagonist ran away from an orphanage to make a life in the woods. I can’t remember the title now—it was some made-for-television, early 80s thing, all bad hair and violins—but I remember how we laid on our stomachs, faces propped in hands, and watched, rapt. The boy made a bow and arrows, hunted deer and pheasant, knew how to find mushrooms. He built a cozy shelter of animal skins and branches where, against a winter sky, smoke curled idly from a hole he had cut in the roof.
Early next morning, I organized the break. Chuck and I packed several items we deemed important—coats, winter boots, a few crackers, and my Holly Hobbie sewing machine—before heading out. We made it as far as the house across the street, where we played with the neighbors, Brandon and Angela, until my mother woke up and found us missing. We were spanked, hard, for running away. We’d been gone for at least an hour, and it was winter, there was snow on the ground, and my brother was only 5. There was my father’s belt, and a sentence to spend the day in our respective rooms. My mother, though, seemed more concerned to find out what had prompted us to try running away in the first place. “Don’t you love your father and me?” she asked. “Are you mad at us?”
I didn’t know then how to put into words my desire to leave the familiar behind. Or how, the night before, shoulder to shoulder with my brother, I imagined it was possible to be a child and still fashion a life of my own, through work, diligence, and an ascetic isolation. As the lights from the TV played images across our upturned faces, I could picture how long we’d have to walk to find some secret place. It was comforting. It was a narrative in which a kid became more powerful than adults.
It is five days until we set out across America, five days until we pack dishes and food and sleeping bags and a tent and bottles of water and ice and bandages and head north first to Montana. I’ve been planning this trip, in some way, for four years. Four years ago, I imagined piling the kids in the car and driving, just driving. We’d pass through towns where no one would know my marriage was falling apart, that in Eugene, Oregon my husband was living in an apartment that I never wanted him to move from. They wouldn’t know that I was contemplating dropping out of graduate school, because who could finish, really, with three kids, the oldest 7? They wouldn’t be able to tell that I had no money, that I was terrified I was fucking everything up. The road, the movement from place to place, the act of seeing, of witnessing to America, became a catharsis I longed for.
Longed for but could not complete, at least not then. As the years passed, I finished school, divorced, worked, constructed a life I’m happy with. Yet the desire, something deep and thirsty, was still there. I wanted to cross the continent, drive the blue and red highways, touch the Corn Palace in South Dakota, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, see Avery Island in Louisiana and the Buddhist temple there. The trip became bigger than a simple therapy, or an answer to a laundry list of worries I’d had, deficiencies I’d never been able to fix. I wanted to see the people who lived in places decidedly different than Eugene, Oregon (which is just about everywhere). I wanted to understand the country I’d called home my entire life. It began to feel like a duty, like a necessary part of my education, my kids’ education. I can sit in a lovely coffee house, drinking my organic, fair trade coffee laced with rice milk, and can comment on the idiocy of Californians for passing Proposition 8, or can shake my head at any array of red state “offenses,” the Sanford debacle, or the Fort Worth brutalization of gay men on the anniversary of Stonewall, but it feels somehow wrong, somehow incomplete, without knowing them, without trying to understand what it’s like to live as them, in those places.
This year, through several fortuitous coincidences, I was able to squirrel away enough money for the trip. Months ago I started planning the epic journey with New Slang Philosopher because we wanted to go together. We drew routes, lined our atlases with pencil marks and circles. But I knew after a month I couldn’t take the trip with her, or anyone but my own children. I had to go it alone, even if it was going to be harder. Even if it was going to be lonelier. Because I needed to see America for myself, and be the one showing the kids. It could never be a joint adventure, not really.
Today, I discovered that NBC and I think alike. That is, their show The Great American Road Trip premieres next week. Not on any day, but on July 7th, the day we embark on our own adventure. Initially, I was horrified. I’d been scooped! Out done! My idea had been stolen! It would ruin everything! But that anger conveniently ignored everyone who came before me (or NBC), like John Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon, or even Homer. There can be no helping the fact that when you talk about The Odyssey, you’re referring to every narrative that has capitalized on that theme since, even Road Trip, and vice versa. No one owns the idea of the road trip, least of all me (and when I’m feeling saucy, I like to say “least of all NBC.”).
So I looked at the show’s website to see what their conception of the meme was. Seven families, all of them so alike that their minor differences seem both staged and glaring, a neat trick. Each family has 2 children. Each family has 2 parents, though one family is the product of divorce and remarriage. They are mostly white (with two exceptions, of course), and they all appear at least solidly middle class. There are no gay parents (or, well, openly gay parents). There are no single parents. There is no family with more than 2 kids.
The families are also outfitted with giant RV’s, and then sent across the country to compete against each other in “comedic challenges.” Each week, a family will be eliminated, which will be decided based upon how well each family does on the challenges. The backdrop of said challenges will be, apparently, places like The Grand Canyon and The Washington Monument. America’s mutant power must be the ability to turn anything, even a literary concept thousands of years old, into a profitable reality television show.
But like all reality television, it’s a far cry from reality. It's not even within walking distance of reality. Taking a journey, an epic road trip, isn’t supposed to be about using iconic American symbols and images as a backdrop for, I dunno, raspberry jam wrestling. And it’s not something that can be scripted in such a manner, or made to conform to a clean, neat 42-minute weekly episode with a clear narrative arc, a protagonist and a plot and building tension.
And I felt, suddenly and quite happily, lightened. Our road trip’s beginning, the way it coincides so perfectly with NBC’s The Great American Road Trip is not a terrible coincidence, but serendipity, pure and simple. It means this is something people are interested in. And while we won’t be traipsing through Washington, trying to outdo other families for some opulent grand prize, we’ll be crossing into Wyoming, and listening to the blue grass at the Big Horn Mountain Festival. We’ll be at the Crazy Horse Memorial. We’ll be on Clear Lake in Minnesota, or at Coney Island, peering cautiously at the bearded woman. We’ll be on the shores of the Florida panhandle, marveling at the warm, crystalline water of the Gulf of Mexico, or dancing to Zydeco in New Orleans, or walking through Selma. We’ll be at the foot of the Great Salt Lake, the edge of the Grand Canyon. And we’ll snake through California, Los Angeles, until we get to that last stop, Susanville, California, the place I tried to run away from all those years ago. In essence, I’ll go home, and then I’ll go home. Which is something, I’m certain, no camera will ever manage to fully capture.
© Heather A. Ryan, 2009. May not use without permission from the author.