Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, / many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea / fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
—The Odyssey, Fagles translation
This is not a story. It’s a road trip, which, same difference. In a good one, the start is exciting and the finish is satisfying and we end up somewhere else. Somewhere a long way from where we started.
—Alice Isn’t Dead, “Episode 1: Omelet”
Stories, said every one of my English teachers, tell you a lot about a culture. (Also, they said everything is sex.)
For instance, we know without even checking their IMDB profiles that the scriptwriters of The Wolverine were probably American, since we all got up in the middle of the theater and demanded a refund when the Japanese gangsters in it all suddenly pulled out automatic weapons in broad daylight in a country whose annual firearm deaths per capita are a rounding error.
(It wasn’t just me, right?)
The ancient Greek heroes who win are sneaky: Odysseus’s Trojan horse, Bellerophon’s judicious use of air superiority, Theseus’s ball of string in the labyrinth. The ancient Greek heroes who die are your mashers: Achilles meets his end by a dishonorable projectile weapon and Hercules—who never met a problem he couldn’t punch until it died—is killed by treachery.
It’s the scrappy, clever hero who is best equipped to wander through the weird purgatory of the unknown and actually make it back home intact, the Greeks figured. And why wouldn’t they think so? They were a seafaring culture, at the mercy of winds and tides that rewarded knowledge and judgment rather than main strength.
The United States is young yet, but she’s got her weird purgatory, too: the open roads of the Lower 48. It’s no coincidence that so many road trip movies are about a lot more than just getting from Point A to Point B.
In Fanboys (2009), Sam Huntington is as stifled by his position as assistant manager of a string of car dealerships as his childhood idol was by farm life on dusty Tatooine. Soon, he will be pulled on a cross-country road trip to steal a rough cut of Star Wars: Episode One, because this is 1999 and nobody knew it sucked yet.
The hero’s journey begins in “the known,” a mundane and inoffensive place where all the normal rules apply. It’s an even chance whether the hero prefers this or chomps at the bit to get away from it: Bilbo could’ve done without his trek to the Lonely Mountain, but Huckleberry Finn couldn’t get away from clean clothes and his unstable father fast enough.
The bland suburban sameness of the “normal” filmic Midwestern United States actually grew out of the interstate system that forms the backdrop of the middle portion of all our road movies. The road is the tumultuous sea that surrounds the little islands of North American civilization.
Some woeful errand drags our protagonists out of that enervating existence and through the purgatorial stretch of chain gas stations, strip malls, tacky hotels, and surly bomber-shades-wearing state troopers.
The Call (and its rejection)
In Wild Hogs (2007), Tim Allen drags his unwilling friends from Cincinnati to the coast to recapture their spirited hell-raising youth from the seats of their motorcycles, encountering a meaner gang of malcontents on bikes suspiciously lacking in after-market parts. Every one of his friends puts up a protest at first, of course.
Most heroes reject the call at first. The outside world is scary and the grooves we’ve carved for ourselves are there to protect us from calamity, to discourage us from making poor decisions. Eventually, though, the call of the open water—or the open road—is either too great to resist, or, as in the case of Max in A Goofy Movie (1995), the hero is dragged bodily along whether he’s into it or not.
Meeting the Threshold Guardians (and usually getting the crap kicked out of you by a large hairy personage)
In O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), George Clooney and his compatriots run afoul of three “sy-reens” who rob them blind and seemingly turn John Turturro into a toad. (He gets better.) They are accosted almost immediately thereafter by a hulking, one-eyed John Goodman who knocks the crap out of them.
When you wander out into the unknown, you meet monstrous harbingers of the trials to come, whether a cyclops in Odysseus’s case or a rape-y guy at the bar in Thelma & Louise (1991). Max and Goofy must contend with Bigfoot. The crew in Fanboys pick a fight with their natural enemies: Trekkies. In Easy Rider (1969), Captain America and Billy get thrown in jail.
This is the hero’s wake-up call. Things are only going to be more dangerous from here.
Into the Unknown
The Griswolds cross into St. Louis in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), only to get lost. The locals vandalize their car. Later, they’ll get sucked into the modern day Charybdis of North America: a tourist trap.
This is always my favorite part of these films, because they’re the part where the movie holds up a funhouse mirror to flyover country, which already needs no such skewed perspective to be bizarre and shady. There are malfunctioning animatronic possum hoedown shows (A Goofy Movie), Klan rallies and bank robberies and gunning down cows with a tommygun for no apparent reason (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Illinois Nazis (The Blues Brothers), vast stretches of arid desert and crooked mechanics (Vacation), and mind-expanding vision quests (Easy Rider and, less memorably, Fanboys). There are fights, detours, and even some tragic losses. Then, as they must in this kind of story, things take a turn.
Death And Rebirth
This is usually the point at which the car (and familial relationship) breaks down in the movie, leaving our heroes stranded and bickering. Alternately, it’s when the elderly family member dies (Vacation and, yes, Little Miss Sunshine, which has been accused of being the same movie even though its similarities are superficial).
The heroes need to reach the lowest and most hopeless point if we’re to root for them, as Homer surely knew. Vacation—a movie with a strong mean streak—plays this for laughs at Chevy Chase’s single-minded obsession, but Little Miss Sunshine plays it straight and calls on the family members to pull together so they don’t miss the eponymous pageant. In Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson dies of a machete wound and his comrades resolve to bear his belongings to his family.
Whatever epiphany our heroes come to at this point is the last bit of motivation they need. When he plunges into the underworld, Aeneas sees the spirits of glorious Romans yet to be born (and bankroll Virgil’s poetry career). When Max and Goofy go off the rails and into a river in A Goofy Movie, they resolve Max’s adolescence with a musical number. (I don’t care if this movie sits at 53 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Ebert gave it three stars, leave me alone.)
The Gift of the Goddess and the Return Home
Here’s where our road movies differ from the old tales in more than just mode of transportation: The goal isn’t really the goal. Odysseus’s quest really is to make it back to Ithaca, Aeneas really is trying to find a safe new home for the refugees from Troy, but look at the laundry list of movies so far.
Little Miss Sunshine is about each one of the family members coming to terms with disappointment and learning to band together through adversity as a unit instead of be undone by their individual weaknesses.
“This was never about the movie,” one of the travelers in Fanboys says as they huddle around a campfire, the last scene before their terminally ill friend dies. “This was about all of us.”
Vacation, darkly, seems just to be about a father trying, for once, to be taken seriously and for his obnoxious family to just do what he says.
A few even flip the script and end-tragically-unless-you-acknowledge-that-we-died-free: Thelma and Louise dive straight into the Grand Canyon rather than die in jail, and Billy and Wyatt may have realized their quest for hedonism was in vain, but at least they died on the open road and didn’t take any shit from rednecks.
The American road movie maguffin, whether it’s a father-son fishing trip, a night of excess in the Big Easy, a beauty pageant, a heist of the most anticipated movie of modern cinema, or Wally World, is something our heroes invariably find to be completely unworthy of the hype. It would be like Jason discovering the golden fleece was just a bad wig, or Arthur finding Excalibur to be a notched wooden sword.
The hero is supposed to bring this mighty relic back to the people, returning to find his home different than when he left it, in a way that sobers him. After the long and lonely days on the interstate, though, whatever our modern-day road trip movie heroes carry back with them, they carry inside.
The hero’s journey has come a long way to get to us, after all. It’s only right that it’s changed, too.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.