I recently came across an article by writer Vanessa Vaselka, which lamented the lack of female road narratives in pop culture. Her thesis -- that travel tales told by women, but which don't concern violence and victimization, are unlikely to be given a fair shake by media consumers -- was beautifully conveyed.
And on the surface, it was very compelling: I wanted to stand in solidarity with Vaselka, if only for the whole gay-traveler-who-doesn't-travel-like-a-typical-gay-traveler thing I embody. The story I'm trying to tell is even more unrepresented than hers!
But each time I returned to the American Reader website -- and I returned several times -- I found myself more and more put off by piece, and less convinced that Ms. Vaselka had any credibility in making the argument she was attempting to make.
I mean, how can you lament society's addiction to over-sensationalized road narratives when you introduce yourself by casually mentioning that you hitchhiked with a serial killer, and lived to tell GQ about it?
The dissonance between the "traveler" archetype the public craves and the one we travelers actually embody is not a result of the gender, sexuality or race of a particular narrator. It's because today's traveler -- and, indeed, today's travel -- is fundamentally different than it has been at any point in even recent history.
More specifically, the problem lies in the fact that literature's most ubiquitous road narratives, from Siddhartha, to Heart of Darkness, to The Tropic of Capricorn, depict carefree (and often careless) vagabonds who take the road with reckless abandon -- and, more importantly, without Internet -- jettisoning their previous existences, along with all the caution, connections and calculation that went along with them.
Because of the degree of separation yesterday's best-known nomadic heros were able to maintain from the lives they had before they set out, they could not only wriggle themselves into the types of compromising situations that would make even the most obedient desk monkey check his vacation balance, but to convey them in a way that seems disarmingly quotidian.
If I sound bitter, it's because I kind of am: I set out on my "big trip" only once I had secured a gig that would ensure I could pay for my travel without going into debt. (A gig which, incidentally, required me to connect to the Internet for at least a few hours every day.)
As more and more travelers, regardless of whether or not they travel professionally like I do, discover that a nomadic life is not just for the trust fund kids and the poor ones who just don't give a fuck, the correlation of being "on the road" with the sorts of things that happened in On The Road is becoming weaker and weaker.
This is not to say that those of us who follow our hearts, minds and souls onto planes, trains and automobiles do not encounter experiences worth writing about. Just last week, for example, I flew to Las Vegas on a whim to meet an Australian man I had only previously known for two-and-a-half days, and drove across California with him.
What is true, as far as I've been able to tell in my own experiences and those of other travelers I know, is that an element of melodrama and of spontaneity -- which may or may not be the same element that drew millions to theaters to watch Emile Hirsch strut around the country like a piece of beef jerky in the film version of Into the Wild a few years ago -- has disappeared.
And I guess I just don't know why that's such a bad thing.
I mean, getting on a plane to attempt to forge a relationship with someone you barely know, who lives literally on the other side of the planet is scary enough. Is it so wrong to want a return flight, a loose itinerary and play-by-play text messages while you wait for him to pick you up at the airport as collateral?
The problem with Vanessa Vaselka's article -- which, in spite of its probably unintentional hypocrisy, I still very much recommend you check out -- is not that her heart, or even her mind, is in the wrong place for wanting the sort of story she tells to be better represented.
It's that the extreme narrative she's claimed as her own clings to a paradigm that has shifted significantly, possibly to the point where it is no longer valid at all.
There is, as far as I've been able to tell, a third travel way, so why can't we start writing about it? I have a feeling the public will want to read what we have to say, even if we're not narrowly escaping truck stop slaughter.