Thursday, June 10, 2010


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.


Dale Katherine Ireland said...

I like this one Karin! What would you think about me printing it out, with proper attribution, and using it to augment my critical thinking class that is themed around road trips? You offer many insightful ideas on the concepts of road--ideas with which students would enjoy engaging. Of course, I would understand if you rather that I did not bring the piece into class.

Thank you for the enjoyable rad; you have me thinking.


Dale Katherine Ireland said...

Um, I would like to change "rad" to "read"--not that you are not rad.

Karin Spirn said...

Dale, I would be so honored if you shared this with your students!

Have you heard the "This American Life" on road trips? It was just on a couple weeks ago.

Dale Katherine Ireland said...

Karin, thank you for allowing me to bring your work into my class. I did hear "This American Life" on road trips, and I am working it into my curriculum. I am thinking of inviting my students to create their own podcasts with transcripts that they will post in Bb. I would like students to study the podcasts as they develop the following skills from the course outline:

1. distinguishing between fact and inference;
2. identifying logical inferences;
3. identifying logical fallacies;
4. recognizing denotative and connotative language;
5. evaluating diction;
6. exploring rhetorical uses of writing;
7. identifying stylistic choices in a text;

I love summer because it gives me time to develop my curriculum for my fall classes. Your post was an unexpected treat!

Karin Spirn said...

So cool! The students will LOVE making podcasts! It's a great way to think about an essay; This American Life is one of my influences in essay writing for sure.

Katie said...

Love it! Now I'm thinking about how freeway walls fit into your metaphor of freeway as freedom--in a way, the sound walls are reminders that our concept of the freeway as freedom masks the inequalities that persist in our democracy--as Michelle pointed out, the sound walls protect those who could only afford to buy a house by the freeway--traveling a freeway feels a lot more liberating than living by one. Interesting to think of the freeway metaphor, too, alongside train tracks as a metaphor for different levels of privilege--the other side of the tracks, etc.

My sister is nuts for The Road, so I guess your co-endorsement will finally get me to give Cormac a try. I've also got to read Octavia Butler--thanks for the reminder! Hi to Dale, too!

Karin Spirn said...

Hi Katie! I (obviously) had our conversation in mind when I wrote this, so I'm extra glad you read it.

I would definitely recommend both the McCarthy and Butler novels highly. The Parable of the Sower is kind of like a less minimalistic, less bleak version of The Road.

Dale Katherine Ireland said...

Katie, you might be interested in _Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape_, which touches on the idea that "the freeway as freedom masks the inequalities that persist in our democracy." Happy sumer to you, Katie!

Karin, I keep rereading your post; thank you!

Anonymous said...

This one goes in the "Best of..."! I loved your turn to civilization--it was so evocative for me. the contrast between our culture's idealization of the road and road as ruin is beautiful here--sort of heartbreaking. I also find the narrative parallels between road as connector and road as engendering connection (friendship) moving. that long tradition (dating back to oral) resonates with what you have to say here about community etc

I hope you write a Road II (one road leads to another)--one that might further explore the gendering of the road. it's such a masculinized concept, and/or is a concept used to masculinize other concepts (ex. "freedom").

xo e
sorry this is so choppy--i'm so sad my first response got erased!

Dale Katherine Ireland said...

I like what Anonymous said, and I do hope that Karin posts a Road II. My students love talking about the gender, race, and the road. We often start off talking about _The Odyssey_ (including the film _O Brother Where Art Thou_) and end up in amazing places, such as the media coverage of gender and race during the last presidential primary road trip.

Karin Spirn said...

Emma, thanks for your thoughts. I'm so sorry they got erased, and thanks for reconstructing them!

You're right about the gendering of the road--as Dale's great examples show. Do you guys discuss Thelma and Louise, Dale? And what about the movie Transamerica--I love the gender dynamics in that movie. Also, I'm curious how race factors in.

If either of you would like to write a post on gender (or race) and roads, I would love to have you as guest contributors!

Dale Katherine Ireland said...

Hi Karin,

Yes, in some classes, including our work in Blackboard, we have talked about Thelma and Louise; it often gives my native speakers an opportunity to practice summarizing because we will have generation 1.5 students or English learners who are unfamiliar with the movie. I have used the movie _Transamerica_ as well; it fits really well into the curriculum. We often start our discussions with _The Odyssey_ because a student will ask if it belongs to the road trip genre, which it does. We also talk about who has access to mobility, which takes us to slavery in the United States, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hildago, The Great Migration, and other historic places where race and gender shape who travels and how. Richard Dry's _Leaving_ is a great text to use when exploring race and road trips, as is Sandra Cisneros's _Caramelo_, and Sherman Alexie's _Reservation Blues_. I also enjoy using Joy Kogowa's _Obasan_ for exploring the Japanese internment in Canada. So many good books! There is great value in analyzing and comparing forced road trips to those made by choice. I fear I have too much to say on this topic.

Lately, my students have started reading arguments for and against the "grand tour" of the eighteenth century. The arguments mirror those about their lives now. My students are often surprised to see find themselves having something in common with folks living three centuries ago. There are often heated discussions in class about whether or not women should travel alone on a road trip, discussions that mirror discussions about women traveling in the eighteenth century. These discussions (often Blackboard threads) become our curriculum as we explore how deductive and inductive reasoning are used when folks make implicit and explicit arguments. We also use these arguments to start our work with Toulmin's schema. I have been developing curriculum on this theme for sixteen years, and I am a road trip freak. Karin, if you got the the following URL and look at the top-left picture, you will see my best buddy who taught me, when I was sixteen, how to drive his VW bus--the road trip never stopped.

I love the picture your created for this post; I want it on a tea mug--hm, make that travel mug! Thank you for the invite to write something. I hope that Emma takes you up on the idea. I would really enjoy reading more of what Emma and you have to say on this topic. If my work this summer develops into something that might fit, I will happily share it with you. Karin, thanks for your thoughtful blogging.


Joseph Smigelski said...

The metaphor - or metonym - of the road was also made good use of by Stephen King in his "Dark Tower" series. Characters walk along on freeways on which the only cars are abandoned and broken. ... And have you read Octavia Butler's "Kindred"? It's a superb novel.

Karin Spirn said...

Hi, Joe! Glad to hear from you.

I have read Kindred--I agree, it's fantastic. I considered writing about it in my dissertation but didn't end up including it.

I haven't read the King novels. It's interesting how many writers pick up on this idea of what strange things freeways are and how odd they'll be once the cars stop working.

Joseph Smigelski said...

Did you do your doctoral dissertation on Octavia Butler? If so, what was your focus?

Karin Spirn said...

Nope, not on Octavia Butler. On race in postmodern American literature.

Anonymous said...

Mackey's a nut. the passage you selected was him at his most bitingly idiotic. a recent New Yorker cartoon shows a firefighter arriving at a man's burning house: 'no thanks', says the homeowner. 'i'm a libertarian.' -k.

Karin Spirn said...

Glad to hear the New Yorker cartoonists are like-minded with me. I keep thinking we should just set the tea-baggers free already, and let them opt out of taxes and all public services, but then I remember one of them might live next door to me when his house burns down.