My dad and I have been reading Huck Finn together, and that got us talking about road trip narratives. He argued that the Odyssey is the original road trip story, and that got me thinking about what else would count: Three Men in a Boat? Definitely. Travels with Charley? No question. Canterbury Tales? Yeah, I could see that. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed? No, that doesn’t feel right. Neither does Lord of the Rings. So why not? What distinguishes a road trip from a story that happens on the road?
I’d argue that there are three elements that make up a good road trip narrative. First, and most critical, it really is about the journey, not the destination. There may or may not be a goal to the journey, and it’s unimportant whether the hero accomplishes that goal–in several of the stories I mentioned, the heroes never get where they’re going, but that doesn’t make the stories any less satisfying. LOTR and Committed don’t count because there’s a critical story question that has to be answered: It’s all about stopping Sauron, or deciding whether or not to get remarried, and every event in both books either furthers or hinders those goals. None of the stopovers in the Odyssey give Odysseus a single tool he needs to reclaim his wife and home.
Second, the people and the land are one: we learn about the place through the people we meet, rather than through the natural beauty of the scenery. And in most cases, we meet people from all walks of life to get a fuller picture of the world.
And third, the hero has companions, either human or animal. If the hero were alone, the story might become man vs. nature, like a Jack London tale, man vs. himself, because it’s really about his inner journey, or man vs. society because wherever he goes, he’s an outsider. But by bringing company along, the journey becomes a shared experience–the hero may go through important internal changes, but what’s happening externally is just as important, and the reader is invited to be a part of it.
If anyone wants to argue that I got something totally wrong, or that I missed something crucial, I’d love to hear! Also, bookmarking this article on our need for more road trip narratives about women, because I think it’s hugely important.