Nathan Asch begins “The Road” with a sentence that embodies the vastness of America and it’s potential for exploration and adventure: “When you try to see America, you start out from a point by train or car or freight or bus and go in any possible direction – all of it is America – and stop off anywhere at all and watch people and talk to people.” Asch then continues to make a very clever distinction between the different modes of travel available in America during his time. Preferring to travel by bus, he describes car trips as isolated and lonely, and train journeys as uptight and extravagant. He alludes to the discomfort of the bus as a positive kind of suffering in comparison to the comfort of the other two methods of transport. I like his description of bus travel, because he focuses on the bonding experience that occurs between passengers, often over cups of coffee during stopovers, as well as through story-telling and jam sessions.
Overall, he distinguishes bus travel as communal and train and car travel as lonely and uninteresting. It was interesting to read about his attempts to debunk and understand Southern stereotypes and culture, only to wind up having lunch with a fellow Brooklynite. This makes me wonder if we always gravitate towards people similar to ourselves.. trying to learn something new and exotic, but always within our comfort zone or boxed into our own ideologies somehow. In any case, it’s clear that Asch values the human element to his journey and it turns out Erskine Caldwell agrees with him. In “Some American People”, Caldwell writes:”There are no memorials, vistas, or landmarks anywhere between the Atlantic and Pacific worthy of going fifty miles to see. Once seen, these Grand Views are relegated to the catalogue merely used to summon up topics for small talk. They are only the lures, after all, of commercial intercourse. What is worth traveling thousands of miles to see and know are people and their activity.” He also expresses that the landscape doesn’t mean much out of context. I can really relate to this. I mean, what value do the Pyramids of Giza have when taken out of historical context and not considered in relation to the development of human society?
Caldwell also comments on the unwillingness of Americans to sacrifice comforts and luxuries while on the road. I think this is relevant today in regards to international travel. Why only 38% of Americans have passports remains largely a mystery. Could it be related to a similar unwillingness to go without a bed or try strange foods? By venturing outside of the United States, tourists are no longer sacrificing just the comfort of home, but possibly their mother tongue and social norms, all in the name of experiencing a foreign culture. Or maybe it’s fear of being treated differently, of being the outsider for once. In Chapter XXIV, Caldwell experiences the treatment that a traveller can be subject to in his hometown. Once Charlie sees his foreign license plates, he boxes Caldwell into a category and is unable to recognize him until the very end of the chapter. In fact, he doesn’t even realize until he notices Caldwell acting differently, which shows just how much judgement was being passed based on one’s perceived origin and background. After seeing things from an outsider’s point of view, Caldwell reconsiders his perception of his own home town and the people he used to value. I think this anecdote brings my post back full-circle to the importance of the people met along the journey. One’s interactions with people can change even long-time perceptions of people and places that symbolize home.