Life truly is a highway
What is it about the road that beckons, that stretches out – teasingly, tantalizingly – before us?
For most of us Americans, the road and its principal vehicle, the automobile, are encoded in our DNA, the asphalt and steel poured into our veins, the narrative and its metaphors reinforced by our cinematic mythology. “VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever” lists no less than 400 road pictures, including many classics like “Easy Rider,” “Rain Man,” “Thelma & Louise” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
But the road does not begin and end with us. In a sense, it began with the first man and woman to put one foot in front of the other and make the choice to journey to a new place and thus a fresh start.
It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s descendants and the first quest myths, like the epic of Gilgamesh; Odysseus’ meandering voyage back to Ithaca – even though the road there is a watery highway; the inexorable march of conquerors like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Napoleon; the pilgrimage of the medieval faithful in “The Canterbury Tales” and to the shrine of St. James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; the search for the ideal in the Arthurian legends and Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
The road can be a finite route or traverse the globe in any number of ways. It is ancient Rome’s Appian Way, where a vision of Jesus is said to have restored the shaken courage of St. Peter. It’s the Silk Road – actually a series of routes linking Europe and Asia – that enticed everyone from Alexander to Marco Polo, inspiring an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, a publication and program by National Geographic, a music ensemble led by Yo-Yo Ma and a store in Bronxville.
Ostensibly, the byway itself is not the point. Those “On the Road” – to borrow the title of Jack Kerouac’s cult novel, whose film version will be released Dec. 21 – have somewhere to get to. They’re on pressing business (“Rain Man”). They’re headed for vacation (“Thelma & Louise”). Or they just want to go home (“The Wizard of Oz”).
But who’s kidding whom? The destination and its objective are what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffins – the plot devices that the characters care so desperately about but mean nothing to us, the audience. We know that the end in itself is only part of the story. Often what really matters is the journey, the people encountered along the way and the choices we make.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
So Robert Frost ended his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken.” But what is “the road not taken?” Is it the path that sighing, nostalgic, individualistic narrator chooses, “the one less traveled by?” Or is it the one forsaken that might’ve led to a different life?
Often the choice – particularly in the restless, disenchanted postwar America populated by the Beats and their hippie successors – has been to follow an open road and see where it takes you, “to get your kicks on Route 66,” as Nat King Cole sang. The young men at the heart of “On the Road,” the TV series “Route 66” and “Easy Rider” were looking for adventure – liquid, erotic, hedonistic and otherwise.
Yet just as often the road forks, and while the choices may become more clear-cut, they are no less easy – love or self-centeredness, responsibility or freedom, life or death. In “Easy Rider,” Captain America fatally turns back to help his fallen friend. In “Thelma & Louise,” the women – on the lam and facing life in prison – kiss and, clutching each other’s hands, drive on over a cliff.
Sometimes, the road ends in death.
But not before we arrive at our destination, not before we come full circle though we may be far from home. In “Rain Man,” the selfish Raymond kidnaps the autistic but financially advantaged brother he believes was the hated father’s favorite only to wind up caring for him. He becomes his brother’s father and in so doing, becomes the parent to himself.
Of all the roads we choose to take on this earth, none is more important than the one that leads to the journey within.
1. “Easy Rider” (1969) – Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s microcosm of druggy, violent, hippie-dippy ’60s America ushered in indie productions.
2. “My Own Private Idaho” (1991) – Keanu Reeves and especially River Phoenix give memorable performances as two hustlers in search of power and lost love.
3. “The Road” (2009) – Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McKee are a father and son on a journey of survival in a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic America.
4. “Rain Man” (1988) – Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar but Tom Cruise gives the performance of his career as a self-involved luxury-car dealer who comes to love his autistic brother.
5. “Thelma & Louise” (1991) – This road pic struck a nerve for its depiction of two women (Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon) on vacation who unwittingly become desperadoes.