What is the Existential Allure of the Road Trip?

words Alexa Wang

Existential tips Road Trip

Source – CC0 Licence

The road trip is something that is almost an anomaly in the modern world. In a world of Instagram feeds, a road trip is yet another way to self-promote, but the road trip should provide something far deeper and insight on an existentialist level. We’ve seen so many cultural depictions of the road trip over decades of literature and movies, but what is this existential allure, and is it something that is still relevant in the modern world?

A Rejection of Consumerism

We cannot escape the onslaught of advertisements, and the common garden road trip is not just a way to learn about oneself but can be marked by chaos and, as evidenced by Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a pursuit of the American Dream, despite being in a distorted version of events. The concept of getting help at the side of the road and the other typical tropes of the standard road trip are thrown to one side. 

Road trips can be a descent into madness and can be absurd. Encountering strange characters along the route can fuel amazing stories and memories of a standard road trip. But it can be the journey into the heart of one psyche as evidenced by Hunter S. Thompson’s crazed narrative.

The Open Highway

The open road is often the first port of call when referencing any road trip. Long before he became an iconic figure in music, Bob Dylan navigated the highways of America in search of inspiration and meaning, going as far as locating his idol Woody Guthrie. His early material asked many existentialist questions and earned him the title of spokesperson for his generation. His lyrics echo the desire to break free from the status quo and start on a road to find change and truth. 

The highway is a metaphor for self-expression, but what’s more, it becomes an allegory for the self and artistic evolution. Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” highlighted his early years when he was armed with just a guitar and his cap, plying his trade around New York, became a part of his desire to further himself and his voice. A road trip can echo these sentiments. They create countless questions and not necessarily as many answers. 

A road trip is something that can shape us and our view of the world. Taking a road trip at the right time can give someone greater access to themselves, whether it’s learning about who they are or who they’re not, as well as what they are capable of. While the world has changed a lot since the early 1960s, there is a huge desire to get back to simplicity in some pockets of society. Those first few chapters of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” echo Jack Kerouac’s version of being On the Road, where it’s not just about the freedom, but the dangers are dripping from every word.

The Search for Freedom and Identity

Anybody looking for the definitive account of the road trip has to go straight to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” While an equal celebration of the Beat Generation’s quest for freedom and identity, the cross-country journeys the novel’s protagonist ventures on are more about the exploration of authenticity and rejecting the social norms of society. 

Rather than playing the game of life, each character is driven by the desire to dive into uncharted territory, in this case, the American landscape. Catching “On the Road” at the right time can give anybody an unquenchable thirst for life. The road is merely symbolic of the desire for a more authentic existence. It is all about liberation from conformity and convention. This is why it is the most popular travel book of all time. 

Despite it being fictionalised, the experiences of Sal Paradise’s were based on Kerouac’s own journeys, and Dean Moriarty was based on his best friend Neal Cassidy. There are morals to not pursuing this as a way of life, of course. Both Cassidy and Jack Kerouac died relatively young, but the time we all need to define who or what we are can easily be bypassed because we are not exploring the self, but rather exploring the selfie.

The Quest for Personal Fulfilment

Looking through the prism of literature as a way to define oneself via the road trip means that many are drawn to spiritualism and, ultimately, the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was adapted into the Julia Roberts movie. A journey of self-discovery and personal fulfilment, as evidenced through her travels, it involves immersing oneself in cultures. Finding a deeper connection with yourself is partly about going away from everything you know. 

That pilgrimage of the soul is something we all should undergo, whether it’s through a gap year or throwing caution to the wind and throwing yourself into different cultures can help you to connect with yourself and with everyone else. Of course, it’s not that easy in the modern world. Road trips and pilgrimages don’t lend themselves well to opening yourself up to the elements. Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach” offers the other perspective of the road trip, where young backpackers discover the dark side of a utopian paradise and is a cautionary tale about seeking perfection away from the complexities of the real world.

The road trip or travel experience is partly an existential quest. The allure of the road trip is not just about going from A to B but about doing this within yourself. For anybody undergoing solo travel, it’s important to be prepared for absolutely anything and to ground oneself in a number of essential practices to ensure they can be ready for the rigours of the road. It is something we should all do as it challenges us to confront ourselves and to seek meaning in life through the open road or through the characters we meet along the way. 

A road trip is not just about the miles you clock but about using this opportunity to discover who you really are. From dark nights of the soul in bars in the middle of nowhere to long walks on the beach where you contemplate every iota of your existence, the road trip or solo travel experience is the best thing for the soul.



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