Vanessa Veselka’s recent piece from The American Reader on the lack of narratives about women on the road really struck a chord. Like many disaffected teenagers, I read and loved Kerouac’s novel. A quote—”We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move.”—adorned the door of my first-year college dorm room. I was raised overseas in a peripatetic family and had worn out a few passports by the time I was 12; the idea of travel as noble made the shock of returning to a static life in the US more bearable. My childhood visits to the US were woven from long road trips to visit far-flung branches of the family, so being behind the wheel, devising the itinerary, or completely doing without one became a symbol of having come into my own. I ran through the classic road narratives—Travels With Charley, Blue Highways, The Motorcycle Diaries, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—and it never occurred to me until much later that only the latter had a heroine instead of a hero.
Only once I started traveling on my own, at 18, did I understand that, as Veselka says “a man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone. This is not cute wordplay, but a radically different social experience.” The mild suspicion of everyone from strangers on trains, to hostel staff, to groups of fellow travelers was first surprising, then irksome, and then wearily anticipated. While I’m sure that, on average, single men meet with far more suspicion than single women, it was made quite clear to me that in this context men were seen as being adventurous, while I was a cause for concern—”a dangerous blank.” Friends, parents, people I met on the road were often worried about my well-being, as if little good could come of my being out in the world alone. I refused to consider—except in passing—the possibilities that Veselka illustrates so heart-breakingly, and carried on my merry way. I’ve had wonderful experiences while traveling improvisationally, alone and with female friends, pulled some stupid stunts, and laughed about it all. I also don’t intend to stop at any point in the foreseeable future. But even now, 14 years later, my solo drive cross-country on a major Interstate when moving from New York to California was still met with surprise ranging to concern, even from feminist friends.
I was lucky enough to have been raised by parents who told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, though they haven’t always been comfortable with the results. In the absence of female role models for my interests, I just adopted male ones. Why couldn’t I be Sal Paradise? Why couldn’t I camp and hitch-hike alone, or drive across half a country in 21 hours (I have). For society at large, though, the few archetypes for a woman traveling alone are that she ends up in trouble, in jail, or in a ditch (Vagabond, Thelma & Louise, Wendy and Lucy, Brokedown Palace) or that she was Crazy to begin with (thanks, Aerosmith). This is radically different from depictions of men traveling; even in stories in which pretty much everything goes wrong (from The Beach to The Hangover)—the hero or heroes emerge from their journey attractively seasoned, and with epic tales and a recharged outlook. This is especially relevant since On The Road finally made it to the screen this year, helmed by the same director who did such a beautiful job with The Motorcycle Diaries—in both stories women are little more than scenery along the way. The lack of a cultural representation that makes experiences such as mine legible is a serious problem; Veselka is right to question whether the inability to view women’s travels as anything other than a cause for concern may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more women who travel solo, the safer and more understood all of us will be—but how many women will be dissuaded by things such as the media’s current fascination with the case of Sarai Sierra:
“She was killed in Istanbul while traveling alone. It was her first trip abroad, and until recently, there was little in her life that would suggest that she would undertake such an adventurous endeavor or meet such a violent end.
When she was growing up, most of her trips were spent upstate with a youth group from a Christian Pentecostal church. Next Friday, funeral services will be held at that church, a place where she worshiped and came to know Steven Sierra, whom she married shortly after high school.”
Within just the first three paragraphs of the article, the paper of record has established that 1) Sierra was traveling alone, 2) it was the first time she had “undertake[n] such an adventurous endeavor” and had little traveling experience generally, and 3) she’s dead. The Times has neatly constructed a tautology here, in which there was little hope that Sarai Sierra wouldn’t end up dead. “What was she thinking?!” seems to be the common refrain, usually followed by “She was a mother!” As if she set out to commit suicide. As if she couldn’t just have been hoping for a positive cultural experience, a chance to practice her favorite hobby of photography, and a break from parenting. And then, there’s the question of whether her status as a woman alone marked her as cut loose from the fabric of society: devalued, and therefore disposable.
I’ve long since realized the manifest-destiny fantasies that lie at the heart of the Western travel narrative, as well as the privilege that often makes such mobility and such accounts possible. However, I still believe that there are few experiences more valuable than being removed from one’s context and learning on a gut-level about other people, places, and practices. That experience is never drawn in sharper relief than when one travels alone. In an age where we’re constantly dealing with the fallout of global problems, having an understanding of what the rest of that globe is like feels increasingly vital. So, while you might dismiss Veselka’s argument as something that only matters in the “fantasy world” of fiction, TV, and movies, the lack of representation of empowered female travelers helps to deny 50+% of the human population the right to know their world without having to battle everything from scrutiny to extreme violence. And that’s no fantasy, that’s a deeply uncomfortable reality.
Nevada desert from the wheel of my car.
– Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters [The American Reader]
– Mystery Deepens as Staten Island Woman’s Body Is Returned From Turkey[The New York Times]