Notes From The Road: Women On Road Trips Aren't Tragedies Waiting To Happen. We're Free.
“We don’t hear enough about women doing epic, exhilarating things without the comfortably defining presence of a man."
There is something intensely clarifying about being on the road. One day on the road feels like seven or eight at home. Life, regular life and all its restrictions recede; as though your former self is separating from you, pushed upwards and out by the increasingly big sky you are driving under, until it becomes a thin distant reality that hardly seems connected to you at all. You are suddenly able to see yourself as an individual, disconnected from your life and the people in it. You become whatever is happening in that moment. You are the gas tank, the weather, the road signs, the cafe menus, the people you meet and the hotel bed you sleep in. You are living outside time. It is heady stuff.
I’m likely not telling you anything you don’t already know to some degree. The promise of new life, of freedom, of the ability to start over, whomever you are, wherever you came from. The story of America is the story of being on the road.
At least, if you’re a man.
The story of women on the road, when we do get it, is almost always one of fear or invisibility. Women traveling alone are habitually escaping from something or are stripped of any agency at all. When they do travel safely and/or happily, it’s because they are accessories to heroic men whose journeys they are aiding - as if they are shiny hubcaps, or rattling engine parts, along either to make our hero look better, or to be shed in a bid for even more freedom.
The only widely recognized language we have for women on the road is that of women on the run. And yet, the truth is all of my road trips have been the result of good decisions I’ve made in my life. They stand as proof of my success as well as my independence. They are evidence of my ability to make my own choices, of the freedom I have as a woman to go where I want and do what I want, when I want.
That I enjoy this freedom is a privilege, to be sure, and a new one at that – I belong to the first generation of financially independent women who appear to choose independence over marriage, and often over children. But it’s also a privilege I’ve worked for and earned. I’m proud of it, and I want to see it reflected back to me in a way that allows me to celebrate it and share it. Mostly I want a better, more triumphant story of women on the road so that others can see me in it.
Meanwhile, the journeys we collectively celebrate having to do with women almost exclusively involve the wedding aisle and the birth canal. Don’t believe me? Go visit the “women’s interest” section of a magazine aisle.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that the best road trip stories involving women, and the ones I’ve cleaved to long into my adult life, are about young girls. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz remains the best example of a female on the archetypal ‘hero’s adventure.’ Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are the definition of the American pioneer dream. My beloved Harriet M. Welsch, and her wanderings around a corner of New York, have always struck me as the younger version of Leopold Bloom or even Holden Caulfield. But all these tales end before puberty hits. After that? Go on back to the magazine aisle.
This may be changing. Slowly. As more women venture out alone, the lament over lack of female road narratives grows louder. In recent years there have been a few female adventure stories that have really hit pay dirt, suggesting, as with so many women-centric plots, that the problem is not that the audience does not exist, nor that the story does not resonate. It’s just that we’re not telling them enough.