Roots

“Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need.  Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”

As a nation of immigrants, Steinbeck thought we were drifters by nature. Maybe that is more true of some of us than others. People often tell us they wish they could travel like we do, but then they always ask questions about roots, security, financial stability. Perhaps these are vocalizations of their own fears, and the “roots” metanarrative is a myth society propagates so it can profit from taxes and promote ownership.

All over the world, governments are trying to stamp out rootlessness. It’s increasingly about counting, controlling, pinning people down. Bedouin, Roma, Indonesian boat people – the states whose boundaries they traverse are trying to force them to settle down. Maybe Steinbeck was right and travelers are not iconoclasts; we’re just doing what’s natural in spite of the myths. In some cases, as Steinbeck notes elsewhere, myth becomes reality through the familiarity of long usage. Will the myth of roots do the same? Maybe not. Maybe the reality is too strong. And in fairness, we have to acknowledge that for rootless, mobile people like us, one motivation is the fear of being tied down, the fear of permanence. For some people change is a way of reviving their vitality; for others, it’s a threat to the life they’ve spent so much time and effort building. But Steinbeck wondered whether the deeper, more ancient need is “the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” Fifty years on, it’s still hard to know whether he was right.

From Belgrade to Amsterdam via Yellowstone

Many of the places we pass on the road are reminiscent of somewhere else. Glasgow, Oregon; Amsterdam, Montana; Aberdeen, Wyoming; Greenland, Colorado. The adventurers and nonconformists who settled these towns in search of something new still seemed unable to cut the roots completely.

There is still something about identity that is tied to where we come from, even if it’s nothing more than a name.

On the road we saw license plates from nearly every state: Alabama, Indiana, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Maine, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Alaska, and even other Washington plates in New Mexico. The number of out-of-state license plates is impressive when you consider that seeing a Maine license plate in Arizona is equivalent to seeing Turkish plates in England. These, too, are a sign of place, a way of establishing connections between people who are otherwise just strangers in a parking lot. “Oh, you’re from Washington! Whereabouts? I got a cousin that lives in Walla Walla. Nice place.”

Even here, though, there is a need to assert some prior socialization, the independence of an identity that is rooted elsewhere. Many of the people we met accomplished this through the medium of license plate frames and bumper stickers. These are identity markers; you may have a Colorado license plate, but your license plate frame identifies you as a fan of a particular football team, which indicates where you’re originally from, or the place you identify with most strongly, or the place you consider home. So if you meet a guy with Colorado plates and a New England Patriots license plate frame, you can safely utter the phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

In all our travels, we saw very few hitchhikers; only four in 5,000 miles. As children on long family road trips, we were constantly on the lookout for those interesting individuals by the sides of the highway, many covered in dust from the road and in varying degrees of disarray, all with their thumbs stuck up hopefully into that big sky. Our parents, of course, always warned us that it was not a good idea to pick up hitchhikers and we should never do it, even if they occasionally did it, because those times were exceptions and you could tell those people were trustworthy but still it wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t ever do it ourselves.

Now the government has taken over the parental role. There were “No Hitchhiking” signs everywhere, symbolized by a picture of an upraised thumb surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. Hitchhiking is now illegal in many states, and pedestrians are no longer allowed on the Interstates at all. This is all part of a greater effort to link safety and sterility. No littering, no hitchhiking; the two are often equated. The idea that this sort of mobility is a blight on the landscape and a threat to the safety of the average motorist is a different aspect of the roots myth. It’s a whole traveler culture gone.

On a clear night as we sailed across the flat desert there was a line of cars coming from the opposite direction, stretching miles into the distance. Headlights in a steady stream curved towards us from the right, and as we crossed the Arizona state line, the lights of a prison lit a hole in the black night sky for miles around. The headlights twinkled and pulsed as they advanced, like stars; the prison lights were steady and penetrating, immobile and permanent. A sheriff flew past us in the inside lane, lights flashing, throwing all the cars around us into momentary panic as they wondered who he was going to pull over for speeding, but he kept right on going. As we passed the exit for the prison we saw him parked on the overpass, facing the compound, highbeams on. Something was up. Again, signs by the side of the highway advised, “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” This time we nodded in silent agreement.

Sanitizing the highways is partly about cleaning things up, and partly about making life safer, more predictable. The impulse is discouraging for rootless travelers, but perhaps understandable.

8 thoughts on “Roots

  1. This is very well written.

    “People often tell us they wish they could travel like we do, but then they always ask questions about roots, security, financial stability. Perhaps these are vocalizations of their own fears, and the “roots” metanarrative is a myth society propagates so it can profit from taxes and promote ownership.”

    I never thought of the taxes and ownership angle before. I talked with this one guy about the 1930s and FDR and the New Deal. He told me that there were so many hitchhikers and train riders (hobos) back in the 30s that it was hard to keep track of transient people. A lot of the social programs came about in the 1930s so as to control people and keep people in a certain place. Control. Place. They are not transient. Transients make some people nervous.

    “In all our travels, we saw very few hitchhikers; only four in 5,000 miles.”

    “Now the government has taken over the parental role. There were “No Hitchhiking” signs everywhere, symbolized by a picture of an upraised thumb surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. Hitchhiking is now illegal in many states, and pedestrians are no longer allowed on the Interstates at all. This is all part of a greater effort to link safety and sterility. No littering, no hitchhiking; the two are often equated. The idea that this sort of mobility is a blight on the landscape and a threat to the safety of the average motorist is a different aspect of the roots myth. It’s a whole traveler culture gone.”

    Sterile highways, sterile culture, sterile life. “Sans teeth, sans taste, sans eyes, sans everything.” (Shakespeare)

    People gotta live on the wild side once in a while.

    “Why is Hitchhiking Illegal in Wyoming?”
    http://tim-shey.blogspot.com/2010/12/why-is-hitchhiking-illegal-in-wyoming.html

    “Few Thumbs Barred From Rides”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/few-thumbs-barred-from-rides/

    • Thanks Tim. Those are some great posts about hitchhiking, too. I like the idea of picking up hitchhikers being about a sense of fairness. I once read an article in a Scottish magazine about a woman who had hitchhiked across Africa. She wrote about how in the UK or the US, cars are usually seen as personal possessions, whereas in Africa those lucky enough to have a car consider it a tool that belongs to the community at large. The people she encountered in Africa picked up hitchhikers as a sort of community service. I really loved that idea, and I think it is a perspective that used to be more common in the States, but perhaps we’ve lost it to some degree. I’m glad to see that you’re still out there hitching, and people are still picking you up!

  2. One time back in the late 1990s, I was walking west on I-40 just outside of El Reno, Oklahoma and I walked past this sign that read “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers They May Be Escaped Prisoners”, or words to that effect. I believe there are two prisons in the El Reno neighborhood.

    So as I walked past that sign I said to myself, “Oh, isn’t that great. People aren’t going to pick me up now.”

    I walked past that sign for two miles and guess who picked me up? It was a young lady and her six-month-old baby. I got in the pickup and she said, “I saw the sign back there about not picking up hitchhikers, but you were carrying a backpack, so I knew that you weren’t an escaped convict.”

    She gave me a ride to Clinton, Oklahoma where I slept in a horse shed that night.

    Life is full of pleasant surprises. If you don’t take a risk once in a while, you never experience these pleasant surprises.

  3. Pingback: Chris McCandless Revisited « The Road

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