I struggle to fully comprehend the times in which I am living. I listen to both sides hash out the news over the airwaves as I drive through endless corn, wheat, and soybean fields. I want to believe that Trump’s America is an anomaly, a blip in that bend toward justice but history tells another story. I started out yesterday morning on Route 6 from Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1947 both Jack Kerouac and Simone de Beauvoir traveled along a similar route toward the Golden State. His story would be told in On the Road, and hers in America Day by Day. There are parallel observations to be found about an America in the years immediately following the second World War, not quite yet in the 1950s we look back on as our heyday not knowing (or ignoring) the greater truths of the time.
They both capture an idea of “Great American Road Trip”, his from the perspective of the Beat, the outsider poet hitching and riding through the rungs of a young, mostly white male society. The women are sidelined, characters in someone else’s story. Simone de Beauvoir’s tale is of the foreign thinker who observes America via a speaking tour of elite women’s colleges and conversations with her intellectual friends. Her remarks can be biting (sorry Rochester) but like Kerouac, her thoughts on the place of post-WWII America are interesting to read in hindsight. I was particularly struck by what she writes about the women she meets in these schools. Here we see the greatest (female) minds of their generation being prepared for the life of a wife and mother – not by choice but through expectation. At the same moment Kerouac is hitching across country, these women are being taught the finer points of being the perfect hostess to your husband’s boss. It is the contrast that is jarring, while these women occupy a higher place in society than Kerouac’s female characters, they suffer the same fate.
Even now, 70 years later, women traveling alone are an exception. When I told people about this trip the most frequent comment was, in a mixture of surprise and worry, “By yourself?” Each time, I wondered if I had been a man if the question would be the same. And when I mentioned that I wanted to write something about this, people would comment, “Like Eat, Pray, Love?”. When I was younger, I loved the movie The Journey of Natty Gan, and I was convinced that one day I would hit the rails in search of adventure. But I learned at roughly that same age the dangers that await young women. As a child, I was aware that there were certain avenues that were closed to me, “for my own safety.” Women have gone on adventures regardless and I love to read tales of women who cycled across continents or sailed the high seas but as I drive this trail west I cannot but help of think of the women who never chose their own course.
There is a third story, not found in a novel or a travel log but in the 1947 travel guide for African Americans, the Green Book, which lists the establishments in American towns that were safe for people of color to patronize. The town from which I started, Ithaca, NY, has a single listing, a nightclub - not even a restaurant or hotel. (The NYPL has digitized many of them, take 5 minutes to look up your home town.) What’s interesting is that both Kerouac and Simone de Beauvoir visit Harlem, in particular the jazz clubs of the era, and it is clear that while African Americans would not have been welcome in many (most) white establishments, the reverse was not true. They got to visit this world that was not their own but at the end of the day they got to return to their lives.
In 2018, I travel as a straight, white, woman. And although at my age I get the side-eye for being unmarried without kids (hello lady at the quilt shop!), I cannot help but wonder what my trip would be like if I was a person of color, openly gay, Muslim, or transgender. As places of commerce are once again allowed to discriminate against people, the greater truth of the myth is revealed, this American road is not now nor was it ever open to everyone.