What male writers' dominance of the travel writing genre says about women's place in American society
In the November 2012 GQ I wrote an essay detailing some of my experiences as a teenage hitchhiker. The article, “The Truck Stop Killer,” focused on a ride I had hitched with a possible serial killer who, I believe, had murdered other girls and was going to murder me. The piece also described some of what it was like living in truck stops, sleeping in two-hour shifts, avoiding violence daily, and experiencing the country peripherally, through the lens of the interstate.
Much of my investigation for GQ hinged on finding some record of a girl left dead in a dumpster in the summer of 1985. She was a teenage hitchhiker, and I had been there when her body was found. Two days later, a truck driver picked me up hitchhiking and led me to believe that he had killed her. He then pulled over to the side of the road, took out a huge knife and told me to get into the back of the truck—he was going to kill me. I was able, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, to escape into the woods. But I did not go to the police. I did not go for help. These were also some of the questions I was exploring through my essay.
My search for stories about the young woman in the dumpster led me back through many of the truck stops I’d known as a teenager. Covering a fourteen-county area, I asked every senior truck-stop employee I could find about a hitchhiker found in a dumpster, but no one had ever heard of her. I broadened the scope of my questions: Had they heard of any homicides in any area truck stops over the past thirty years? They didn’t remember a thing. But what I was learning from the FBI painted a landscape of extreme violence, one that matched the world of my memory. By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”
Now, it would be tempting to say that her reticence was rooted in a sense of company loyalty, or in a straight-out fear of getting fired. Another argument might be that people see what they want to see and look the other way when it serves them. Or, we could say that women in these truck stops—waitresses, sales clerks, bookkeepers—are functioning within a system of subliminal oppression, and didn’t “see” these murdered girls because they routinely shunned women on the margins in order to protect their own tenuous status in a violent, male-dominated world. It is not a particularly groundbreaking statement to say that brutal self-policing can be a resistance strategy.
But even if they had wanted to hide what was going on at their truck stop, they could have talked about what was happening at others, gossip ever a human pastime. And in a society as obsessed with celebrity as ours, where people claw their way to a camera or a microphone and serial killers breed fascination rather than disgust, someone should have remembered something. Who forgets the body of a murdered teenaged girl found at their place of employment while they worked there? There is no doubt that the social invisibility of these women contributed to their predation. But what exactly was that invisibility made from? These women weren’t remembered, it seemed, because they hadn’t been seen in the first place. And they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death. As such, women on the road were already raped, already dead. Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.
Siddhartha, Dante, and Frodo
Siddhartha wants liberation, Dante wants Beatrice, Frodo wants to get to Mount Doom—we all want something. Quest is elemental to the human experience. All road narratives are to some extent built on quest. If you’re a woman, though, this fundamental possibility of quest is denied. You can’t go anywhere if you can’t step out onto a road.
To offer some context for my perspective, the year I was fifteen I hitchhiked 15,000 miles alone, mostly through truck stops. By the time I was nineteen I had hitchhiked another 5,000 miles through Turkey, Greece, and pre-war Yugoslavia, also alone. Those years were a time of misery and terror, but they were also transformative. Every day I bounced wildly between danger, high comedy, and extreme loneliness—which is to say that it was also an adventure, and that inside all the high stakes turmoil was a nascent self that was trying to become, to change, to step out into the world as an adult.
But there is no female counterpart in our culture to Ishmael or Huck Finn. There is no Dean Moriarty, Sal, or even a Fuckhead. It sounds like a doctoral crisis, but it’s not. As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.
True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny. A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism. Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way. I will also admit that I think fixed narratives can be pretty dangerous. As vessels that shape our sense of self, they can be narcotic, limiting, and boring, and our development as humans is directly tied to our ability to cut across these simplistic story lines rather than be enslaved by them. Keystones in the arch under which we pass into a landscape of adolescent narcissism—that is what I think of fixed narratives. But they also keep us safe. They mark our place in society and make sure we’re seen. Therefore, the only thing more dangerous than having simplistic narratives is having no narrative at all, which is deadly.
The subject of why women don’t have quest narratives would require a work the length of the unabridged Pentagon Papers. The short answer is kind of a “duh.” Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change. You can go on a quest to save your father, dress like a man and get discovered upon injury, get martyred and raped, but God forbid you go out the door just to see what’s out there. And these are the tales of rape and death that get handed down to us.
I am not saying that rape and violence aren’t the predominant experiences of female hitchhikers; rather, I’m saying that our cultural imagination plays a role in why it is the predominant experience. Without other narratives to inflect the ones we already possess, our relationship to the woman stranger we meet on the road is forestalled. We turn away. We don’t want to see. We sanction this invisibility, because her visibility forces a choice: whether or not to save her. Left with the pressure to rescue or run, it’s just easier not to see. This is the exact place where narrative poverty renders women on the road socially invisible.
So yes. One might argue that perhaps so few narratives exist because positive transformative experiences are rare. In other words, that for women hitchhikers, rape and death are pretty much all that is out there and, given time, they are what each woman will meet statistically. Setting aside death (which, statistically, we will all meet), it is fair to say that any woman who hitchhikes long enough might very well get raped. But it is also true that every guy who works on a crab boat might fall overboard or lose a finger, and that every chef will probably get badly burned. Over enough time, every guy on the street will probably get beaten up, soldiers in active combat duty will be shot at, and every racecar driver will crash—yet we view these statistical likelihoods differently.
During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny. Fate, yes. Destiny, no. I was either “lucky to be alive” or so abysmally stupid for hitchhiking in the first place that I deserved to be dead. And, while I may have been abysmally stupid, my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, “stealing” a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the U.S., or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
Even Fuckhead gets a book
The lack of female road narratives has long been a frustration of mine. I first became conscious of it about four months after I left home. I was in a truck stop outside of Albuquerque and saw a young man doing his laundry on the trucker’s side. Like me, he was travelling, though perhaps a bit better off because he had laundry. A college-aged kid with a backpack, he was (yes, it’s true) carrying a copy of On the Road. I remember it because I had never seen the book and asked him what it was about. He said it was about a guy who left all the bullshit behind and went out on the road. I immediately related.
I sat down a chair away and tried to strike up a conversation, but failed. While I’ll admit I have a tendency to be puppy-like in my friendliness when it’s not wanted, his discomfort seemed extreme. Here we were, both teenagers, both waiting on rides and travelling the highways, both trying to figure ourselves out and become something—but he was armored with an idea, a narrative through which he could both shape himself and be recognized socially. He was visible. I was an unknown, a dangerous blank.
As I have said, lacking a variety of narratives is unsafe for anybody on the margins—ask any queer. Now, I can imagine someone saying, Wait a minute, narratives don’t kill people—people kill people. True. But a narrative that promises more than death leads to curiosity, which leads to interaction. When a narrative’s conclusion is limited in the public’s imagination to mortal beatings and rape, its tension resides exclusively within the onlooker, and is measured by the extent to which he or she is emotionally moved. The woman on the road then ceases to be human, as with many on the margins, and instead becomes a barometer, a tool by which the onlooker’s (or reader’s) humanity can be measured or determined. She is an object fetishized by their compassion (rather than, say, the “male gaze”) and the onlooker can choose to save her, choose to watch, or choose to ignore her as her fate plays out; these choices become the heart of the drama.
Three years later during a brief stint in college, I did read On the Road and was stunned by how tame and well-funded Sal’s journey seemed. I was in my thirties before I could appreciate Kerouac, but I do now. Still, the things that Ishmael, Huck, Sal, and Fuckhead fled from—restlessness, civilizing, suffocation by the mundane, and consciousness—were somehow not sufficient to justify my departure.
So what road-based narratives of possibility do women have? There is the Tom Robbins bestseller, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which has the famous hitchhiker Sissy—she’s not marked for rape or death. But then again, Sissy is protected by abnormally large…thumbs. Then there is Dorothy on the yellow brick road. That is certainly a road story…set in the land of Oz. There are some anthologies of women’s road stories coming up through indie presses, and Hollywood has made a few hitchhiker girls-gone-wild movies. But none of these share the element of quest or quality of restlessness that define the male road narrative. So while there may be stories out there, none leap to mind, and it is the very act of “leaping to mind” that makes such narratives relevant. I mean, my God, even Fuckhead gets a book.
On the shoulder, on the edge, exile
Since our heroines “must” always be trying to escape the road (for a very narrow set of reasons), and since we have collectively decided that their stories should exist only in the shadow of a predator, or in the shadow of a fall from grace, narratives that move beyond these parameters present us with characters whose humanity we don’t recognize, and who are thereby doomed to literary silence. But why is this the case? We all love a good story. We love to be surprised by characters. Why should there be such narrative constriction regarding women on the road?
I would have written off my early experience with On-The-Road-Boy were it not so typical. It became more and more obvious as I travelled that I scared people. I was young and freckle-faced. I always washed my hair and combed it in bathroom sinks. I was cogent and approachable. But still, something set me apart from my male counterparts. I engendered a fear that seemed to arise from the gap between men and women regarding the social costs of hitchhiking. The pay-to-play price for a woman is just so much higher than for a man. We recognize that, in our world, a woman on the road is marked. She has been cut from the social fabric, excised at such an elemental level that when she steps onto the road, she steps into an abyss. And whatever leads up to that choice inspires in us a primal fear. 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. Often, I was asked why was I travelling. But over time, I came to understand that the question was not “why,” but “how.” As in, how could I have left? How bad was it? How could this have come to pass? These are very different questions from “why.” “How” is about events, as in “how did it happen?” Whereas “why” points to individuality and agency. Why did you go that way? Why do you like Gouda and hate Swiss? Why do you think that this is a good idea? The difference between “how” and “why” marks a fundamental divide between the male and female road experience.
But does “how” versus “why” really affect visibility? Wouldn’t a single dramatic narrative like rape or death make someone (especially someone in the passenger seat of your car) all the more visible? It comes back to the anxiety of the onlooker or driver. In a crisis of orientation regarding the passenger, they try to see the passenger through different narratives so they know how to feel or react to them based on who they believe themselves to be from an ethical and social perspective. Above all else, narratives are mirrors, right? When the female traveler in the seat doesn’t conform to those narratives, though, their visibility breaks down. Like an orbital shaped by statistical probability, she seems to appear and disappear, coalescing as an electron might only where you expect to see one. And who wouldn’t be anxious with someone stuttering in and out of existence in front of them? So we pick a familiar storyline and pin her to our worldview.
Once the narrative is restricted to the familiar, though, we are back where we started and have to either run from or engage with the choice of whether to save or abandon the woman on the road. Under these limits the question, “So are you helpless, tragic, or stupid?” makes a lot of sense. Translated, it asks: “Tell me how to treat you.”
If we look once again at our gut response to a woman on the road we can see that its substrate is exile. A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her. She has not “struck out on her own.” She has been shunned. And once one person has shunned her, the next will as well. Simply the fact that she is out there says something about her is frightening.
Distilling it further, the prohibition against quests for women combines with traditional sexual prohibitions (when she transgresses, she falls) to create a road narrative with no possibility beyond rape and death. How do you like that for a Scylla and Charybdis? Have fun Odessa! In case I don’t make it, give my regards to Penelope.
She has fallen by the wayside
She has gone beyond recall
Not a hand would stretch to save her
Not a friend that she could call
Every door has closed against her
Not a soul for her will mourn
She has fallen by the wayside
She has gone beyond recall
This song was popular back when ice was new. The basic gist, that once fallen by the wayside “she” is gone beyond recall, remains embedded in our culture. We can pretty much assume the woman’s fall here is sexual, but it is the “wayside” that makes the fall permanent. Unlike any number of Johnny Cash songs, she can’t be a murderer or a thief or a liar, find God and be redeemed, because she has no access to that abstract highway on which destiny occurs. There is no greater symbol for freedom or change than “the road.” And yet, fallen by its side, she has no access to its agency. Once on the edge of that road, her role is to watch people pass her by. Although we have a deeper reservoir of cultural pity for women like that today, the actual concept of “the road” as a pathway to female selfhood, or a new future, or a different America, is nowhere evident in our popular songs or stories. Women on the road are like figures on a green screen. We think we see them when what we are really seeing is the cutout lines, the shadow of their displacement. We’re seeing absence. We’re reading motion sensors. Once placed upon that screen, we can throw anything up behind them behind—a meth lab or a barn or a motel—and make them into whatever we want. We can do anything to them because they only achieve agency through context and context through our projected narrative, rape and death.
I am not suggesting that women wrap themselves in male quest narratives and go penniless out onto the highway. But I am suggesting that women on the road deserve to be painted with a more complex palette, and that there is a profound difference between how we as onlookers respond to someone we perceive as motivated by a sense of adventure, versus someone we fear may have been shunned. Furthermore, we might want to consider that hidden inside the tale of Huck Finn poling down the river, like a stream within in a stream, is the story of female exile.
There is no way to snap one’s fingers and make mythology. There is no way to pry open a national narrative and insert an entire population. But we do get glimpses. One day, in a book or a film, a new woman appears, and she feels real. Not contrived or reactionary, she transcends the page or the screen.
Perhaps the most powerful female road narrative I know of is the story of Kit, from Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. I read it during my years of hitchhiking and remember vividly her self-defining statement that they were not tourists, but travelers. That sentence thrilled me, because I was also a traveler interested in destiny not destination—the way back was an island in a sea, and I a sailor, not an intertidal clam; I imagined a thousand futures. Accustomed as I was then to following men through all the stories I loved, I was shocked when Port died and the book didn’t end. It didn’t end because Kit was alive: she was alive and she was travelling. She goes through the Sahara in a caravan, has an affair, gets confused in a marketplace, loses some of her marbles, gets “rescued” and returns to Tangiers, where she slips back into the city and goes off again.
The only other solo, female hitchhiker I ever met was a blonde eighteen-year-old who went by the CB handle of “Goldenberry.” We shared a ride through several southwest states. She said I should come stay with her in Ventura Beach and talked about all the cool things we could do. I was enthralled. When I showed up on her doorstep a few weeks later there was a party going on at her house. She came to the door but looked right through me like I didn’t exist. She didn’t invite me in. I think I said something stupid like, “Well anyway I was just in the neighborhood,” then cried all night on the beach.
This is a fine story. It’s a true story. It has extremely pathetic moments, fantasy, unrealistic expectations—everything. But if I tried to write it, I would be asked to explain so many things that the story would never get off the ground. Why I was out there in the first place? Why was Goldenberry out there? What drove us to the road? Why couldn’t we go back? What were we running from? This is what it means to have no narrative outside of victimization and violence: it means wasting time constructing your moral right to tell a story in the first place, it means watching it get choked in the crib…
If we have a shot it’s going to be because we stopped asking permission and just started in the middle.
 I am not using imagination here as a stand-in for social values and behaviors. While they are intertwined, one can have a desire to help, vote to fund programs for women, hope for the best for those suffering, and still not expand the scope of their narrative vision to give women options like quest or exploration.
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