The Myth Of The Road Trip
I've always seen road trips as an escape, something other than a perfunctory drive from A to B. Most serious truck drivers I know log hundreds of thousands of miles across country without giving much thought about the romance and mystique of what a road trip may or may not be. Hitchhiking was a way of life for me in my early teens- something I wouldn't consider today-and trips could be 200 to 500 miles. I had a lot of downtime between rides and all the visual aspects of what one misses at 70 mph are what I recall today. Unique roadside architecture, strange cars in states of distress, personalities you don't find in a mall today or on Interstate 10.
If Jack Kerouac got a generation to hit the road in the '50s, it took Easy Rider to do the same for a later generation. Independent and road movies became the rage for a few years in the quest for the youth buck. This soon proved to be a bust and Hollywood retreated. However, there were some rough diamonds and none has cleaned up or looked better today than Two-Lane Blacktop.
The film is now the subject of rave reviews, tributes and the usual boxed set release. However, after its release in 1971, failure at the box office nearly ended director Monte Hellman's career. I saw it the week of its release in Southern California; the house was packed and anxious. By the time the credits rolled, the place was almost empty. Few films I've ever seen have provoked such a negative response. I loved it. It's easy to understand the crowd's disappointment and Universal's publicity department deserve a lot of the blame. TLB was billed with such clichs as: 'No beginning... no end... no speed limit.' With a tag like that, you're obviously aiming at the car culture crowd, street racers, etc.
Much has been made of TLB's minimalism and existentialist aura. I often wonder if the people who spout that stuff have ever taken a real road trip. The screenplay was by Rudy Wurlitzer who is a true western author in the manner of Thomas Pyhchon, Burroughs and especially Sam Shepard. The eastern philosophy may be prevalent in a manner of, say, Alan Watts, but there's no doubt the view is closer to the badlands of the west. A recent conversation I had with Rudy Wurlitzer brought back memories of a road trip I made in 1984, one covered in european car's predecessor, written by the great Len Frank-an existentialist character if ever there was one.
My friend Steve Sailors and I made a red-eye flight from LAX to New York during a cold November. The purpose of the trip was to close the deal on a Porsche 904; I suggested to Steve that we drive it home. Hey, if it was good enough for Ernie McAffe to drive a Ferrari 500 with no plates, we should be able to handle a coupe. As it was, this 904 had an open exhaust, wouldn't run below 3500 rpm, no radio, no heater, of course (although the factory did offer an optional gas heater back then-in a fiberglass car?) and our form of ID came with a single dealer plate I had safety-wired on. The Koni shocks were set at the stiffest setting, a fact learned upon the first bump encountered after one block. We headed off to Paoli, Pennsylvania, to a friend's shop to wire in a radar detector, as there was no cigarette lighter socket.
The true excursion began next morning after three eggs over easy and Steve's bizarre ordering of a club sandwich at 7 a.m. The drive featured: a race with a 911; being ignored in a gas station because the full service attendant thought we wanted methanol; being pulled over in West Virginia by a cop for no particular reason (although the national speed limit was 55 mph at the time); a torrential downpour; cheap motel rooms; diner food; angry truck drivers and high speed, usually way over 100 mph when the road was open. The only mechanical issue was a snapped clutch cable in New Mexico, fixed with some wire scavenged from a ripped radial tire found by the roadside. The most remarkable aspect was that there was nothing remarkable at all. The vast nothingness viewed from the cramped quarters of the 904 at speed was matched only by the lack of conversation. There was nothing to say-the road was saying it all. From this perspective, Rudy Wurlitzer got it absolutely right in Two-Lane Blacktop. Two years later, George Lucas released American Graffiti, a film that played it safer by staying closer to home.
What does this have to do with my usual ramblings? As soon as the 12 Hours of Sebring is history, my girlfriend and I will depart Florida in a stock 1963 Volkswagen that has 21,000 original miles on the odo; 40 hp, six-volt system, no air, no cruise. Highway 61 up to Memphis and then turn west.