It's a thin line between clever and stupid. What was so wrong with watching TV? Why was I doing this? What the fuck was this myth that you have to leave your job, your wife, your tear-stained woman waving goodbye with a kitchen towel behind the screen door so you can ride all over the country with a sore ass, battling crosswinds, rain, arrogant volvos, and minivans?
This is stupid. This is very, very stupid. I don't even have a tear-stained dog to wave bye to me. But I told everyone I was going to do this so I gotta do it . . . or I will be living a life of feminist-sounding somedays. And I will be more responsible, powerful, and amazing afterward. I will be able to do anything and not self-consciously stare at elevator numbers when the doors close. I will look the other person right in the eye and nod hello.
Ever since I was a kid, I tried to live vicariously through the hooker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe because I just couldn't identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make them coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed themselves with their existential penises.
If you think about "road narrative" in the narrow sense then yes, but if you think about it in the broad sense of "men have epic quests on which they learn about themselves and become themselves and women don't" I think that's a valid concern. Especially when you zoom all the way out to show that when women are objects everyone loses.
And yet in real life, I think the road does function in the same way as it does in literature featuring men - it bonds relationships through the shared crucible of travel experience, it creates a temporary liminal zone where there is an openness to change and spontaneity, and it divorces the requirements of everyday life in a given social context from the possibilities of any day outside that context.
My search for stories about the young woman in the dumpster led me back through many of the truck stops I’d known as a teenager. Covering a fourteen-county area, I asked every senior truck-stop employee I could find about a hitchhiker found in a dumpster, but no one had ever heard of her. I broadened the scope of my questions: Had they heard of any homicides in any area truck stops over the past thirty years? They didn’t remember a thing. But what I was learning from the FBI painted a landscape of extreme violence, one that matched the world of my memory. By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”
* * *
During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny. Fate, yes. Destiny, no. I was either “lucky to be alive” or so abysmally stupid for hitchhiking in the first place that I deserved to be dead. And, while I may have been abysmally stupid, my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, “stealing” a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the U.S., or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
* * *
I am not suggesting that women wrap themselves in male quest narratives and go penniless out onto the highway. But I am suggesting that women on the road deserve to be painted with a more complex palette, and that there is a profound difference between how we as onlookers respond to someone we perceive as motivated by a sense of adventure, versus someone we fear may have been shunned.
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