Every morning, I drive on the 580 freeway thirty miles southeast to my workplace in Livermore. I spend at least an hour every day on this freeway—speeding past all sorts of plants and walls and dead animals and garbage and cityscapes and views of the bay that I could barely begin to describe, if I’ve noticed them at all. The freeways are a bizarre no-man’s land, somewhere we go every day, but not anywhere that we think of as a place. In fact, we do all we can to pretend the giant roads don’t exist, building high walls to shelter our neighborhoods from their noise and dirt.
I’ve been thinking a lot about freeways lately. Like approximately twenty percent of people I know, I recently read Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road. In case you’re one of the other eighty percent, The Road follows the story of a father and his young son as they navigate the perils of a post-apocalyptic world where almost all living creatures have died in some unnamed disaster. The father and son travel by foot down a state highway, pursuing the bleak hope that conditions will be better further south and closer to a coast.
Lots of stories use roads as symbols. In the hero’s journey, the structure described by Joseph Campbell that underlies legends and adventure stories from around the world, the road of trials is the central part of the story, the series of mystical challenges that the hero must overcome.
George Lakoff’s theory of conceptual metaphors helps explain why roads are found in so many narratives. Lakoff points out that almost any event that follows a progression can be symbolized as a journey. People tend to talk about their lives, their romantic relationships, their education, and their careers as journeys. And the metaphor, or perhaps the metonym, for a journey is often the path that it follows, the road itself. So if I ask you how things are going with your significant other, you might say:
We’re at a crossroads.
It’s been bumpy.
We’re encountering obstacles.
We’ve reached a dead end.
This metaphor of road as progress explains why so many stories center on roads. The road becomes a manifestation of the forward movement of the plot. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road as it leads her to every character and obstacle she is destined to encounter; and when she gets to the end of the road, the story reaches its climax. In fact, we might see the road as a symbol for narrative itself.
Roads are such a fundamental part of so many stories that they tend to become invisible, just like the actual freeways we hide out of sight. But the road in McCarthy’s novel is something different. It isn’t just a pathway for the stories and the characters to follow. It’s a thing. The characters walk along it, but they also sleep on it. They kick ash out of it, and climb over dead tree limbs and abandoned vehicles that litter it.
It reminds me of another novel, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which also depicts a journey down a road that has been largely abandoned by a fallen civilization. The two novels share a fascination with how one might use roads after the cars that they were built for are gone, along with all that went with those cars: the anonymity, the safe distance from one’s fellow travelers, the orderly rules. It is jarring to see a freeway as a place where people might walk, eat, sleep, fight, all the things that people usually do at their destinations, not on the roads that take us there.
Since the characters are not flying down the road at seventy miles per hour, readers can see it for what it really is: one of the last, most enduring signifiers of what it means to live in a society. Even after society has crumbled, the roads remain, providing an open path for travel and a promise that they will lead to a destination. When everything around has fallen into chaos and there is no promise of the food, shelter, protection that a society affords, the roads still provide a service, a trusted path, so that travelers don’t need to worry about navigating their journey.
Roads signify civilization because they assert mankind’s dominance over the mystery and disorderliness of nature. They take an uncharted territory and impose human ideas of logic and organization onto it. The Roman Empire was famous for its use of roads to signify their imperial, “civilizing” power. The roads reflected the logic of the empire, all of them leading from Rome to a conquered territory.
In America, roads symbolize social welfare and democracy. They are one amenity that Americans across the political spectrum can agree our government should provide. Conservatives want to limit government’s role in providing education or health care, but no one argues that we should privatize the roads. Roads are for everyone, the ultimate public service, shared equitably by rich and poor alike. Of course, roads in rich areas are better maintained than roads in poor areas, and poor people are often harassed when they drive on roads in affluent neighborhoods. That’s why freeways are the ultimate symbol of democracy, the connectors between places, taking us out of our own neighborhoods and cities and states and into any other place we wish to go.
During recent debates about nationalized health care, Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey wrote, “A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This ‘right’ has never existed in America.”
I thought at the time: we don’t have a right to a lot of things. There is no constitutional right to public education, or transportation, or a fire department, or police or military protection, or roads. But I’m really glad we have all of those things, since they connect us to one another and shape us into a community.