An Interactive Map of American Literature's Most Memorable Road Trips
Herodotus’s Histories can’t be followed without a map. But in reality, the literature and art of travel are never far apart.
Literature and travel together comprise one of the most enduring links in human culture: movement through space, and the documentation of those movements as experienced in the minds of travelers. Western literature, according to Chilean poet, Raul Zurita, begins with the funeral of Hector of Troy at the end of the Iliad. But we could say that travel literature begins with Ulysses trying to return to his place of origin in the Odyssey.
This journey of movement (literally, the completion of a circle or a returning) is not only a recurring element in many narrative structures, but it’s an important convention, especially in the Fantasy genre. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one, but many adventures include heroes using imaginary maps to plot their journeys along recognizable coordinates.
Richard Kreitner and Steven Melendez, in Atlas Obscura, set out to map some of the most iconic (and geographically locatable) sites listed in books featuring road trips, that mobile and frantic genre that’s become its own genre, in film especially, and especially among American authors. Some books, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas for example, where the journey is more interior and the “real” road trip is but a beginning, were, by necessity, left out.
The map allows one to contrast descriptions of the same places by different authors at different times and to follow their adventures through US territory with occasional breaks south of the border into Mexico, as in the case of Jack Kerouac’s travel novel par excellence in the recent Anglo-American tradition; On the Road.
Of course, mapping all the places described in recent American literature (or even just those in Kerouac’s books) would be a daunting challenge. We can follow the journeys of several road-trip books that met one requirement: that they follow a narrative arc replicated in the geographical terrain, irrespective of whether the text is fiction or non-fiction.
Take for example A Walk Across America (1979) by Peter Jenkins, in which Jenkins and his dog travel from New Orleans to New York mapping true marginality in the southern United States. The adventures of F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife, Zelda, are followed in their car journey from Connecticut to Montgomery, Alabama. The oldest book mapped in the project is Roughing It by Mark Twain, published in 1872 and in which a trip west is documented at a time when a transcontinental journey was far less accessible than it would be today. The most recent, Wild (2012), by Cheryl Strayed, tells of a hike through the mountains from southern California to Portland, Oregon.
Predictably, the most consulted maps are those of Kerouac’s On The Road from New York to San Francisco, with detours to Denver and Mexico City, and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test from 1968, which is something of a reply to Kerouac, ten years later, with occasional overlaps in cast and location.
Literature in the Americas can be traced to Indian chronicles, in which European explorers needed to draw upon literature to delineate the lost grandeur of preceding civilizations. Somehow, each written page, followed closely by an eye and a finger following a line, is a follow-up, a witness of sorts, to a symbolic map of our own journeys through the topographies of someone before us; the true road trips of history.
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