Finding the Ethos of Route 66 Abroad
Is the road trip an American invention?
By Grant Rosenberg

Between stops at gas stations, we pass castles from the 15th century. This is not a view from Interstate 80, pedal down, cruising parallel to Route 66 as you make your way from Chicago to the California desert. We are driving from Paris to the Ariege region of France, south of Toulouse, within view of the Pyrenees. With the CD player spinning tunes, road atlas in lap, truckers alongside us as we approach the toll booth, the question arises of how that distinctly American pastime—the proverbial "road trip!"—translates to other countries.

Because, after all, Americans invented the road trip. If Europeans created and perfected train travel—with its smoky, romantic style, stuck in an earlier époque and suited perfectly to their land’s size—we did the same for the automobile. From the beginning of its invention, the car was made for the United States—from sea to sea, no passport checks, one language and long stretches of road through a variety of landscapes and temperature zones. The culture clichés follow suit: one drives (hitches, rides a motorcycle) across America, while one backpacks through Europe, hopping the trains through a dozen countries.

We play each other’s game, but the cross-country passenger trains in the U.S. are not quite the same as their European counterparts, nor are the personal vehicle the same here in Europe. The differences begin with automobiles themselves; car advertisements do not play off the notion of drivers’ love affairs with their cars to the extent that they do in the U.S., and public transportation in the cities is egalitarian, rather than limited to those who cannot afford their own cars, as is the case in parts of U.S. cities. In France, SUVs are rare due to their impracticality, and most cars are quite similar—compact, utilitarian manual transmission machines, most with the size and character of a Volkswagen Golf, the pragmatic solution to having limited maneuverability. This is particularly true in major cities like Paris, designed more for pedestrians and motorcycles than four-wheel motorized vehicles. And it is only becoming more so, with political measures being taken to reduce traffic by actually creating it in the short-term, thanks to the new development of bus-only lanes and physical barriers to make it certain.

France, a nation rich in landscapes and cityscapes, is nevertheless smaller than the area of the U.S. Midwest. This geographical and architectural notion is reflected in the inhabitants themselves. Whereas European men in small-tabled cafés often sit with their legs tightly crossed, their American counterpoints, eating in large booths at 24-hour diners, sit sprawled out, legs wide open, expanding to the space allotted as they read newspapers and books featuring terms like "urban sprawl." It is our bigness that provokes us, and it is central to our core mythology of "Americana." From Kerouac to Easy Rider to Simon and Garfunkel’s "America" and so much more, it is about that odyssey, following Manifest Destiny, that in modern times, with nothing left untouched anymore, substitutes the exclusive focus of self-discovery in the place of a real journey of outward exploration. Since the retirement of Route 66, the adventure has subsided a bit. But it is still there because to get from point A to point B, from State A to State B, is to earn the arrival.

One comes to Europe for the ancient castles, for the cathedrals and cramped cafés, not for the mini-marts off the major highway with the lotto scratch card impulse buys next to the register. These brightly-lit pastel anti-gothic interiors are contrived, awkwardly fit into a culture and way of life that does not demand it because they were not made for here. One imagines an old inn, remodeled, fit within its old structure like so many buildings here. But instead it is the same as the U.S., efficient and pragmatic but slightly off, like finding ourselves in a bizarro-world of U.S. Interstate culture.

Perhaps I find myself comparing the idea of the road trip specifically because it is one of the rare instances of reverse influence. Putting aside the issues of fast food, canned goods and all around American hegemony, we rarely influence the system over here. Rock and roll and blue jeans and cars immediately come to mind. And I’m listening to American rock and roll as I remark that the road signs are not rectangles of green but squares of blue, with a capitalized white font, marked in kilometers. As we drive on the smaller roads off the expressways, where we travel through the main thoroughfares of small towns, we are informed that we are leaving the city limits with the same sign that marked arrival but now with a red slash through it. Rather than a "Thanks for Visiting" or "City Limits" sign, it is as if the town has changed its name or does not anymore exist.

As we return to the expressway, I notice that the gas, food and lodging signs, a staple of U.S. open road travel, lack the "lodging." In the U.S., at any given highway exit, you may have been driving for 12 hours but not here, save for the truckers. The road trip lengths are not counted in double-digit hours. Absent on the roads are the motel signs, the diners open all night. Surely this is to come sometime soon, but for now our sleeping and eating arrangements remain more personal and unique. On the second day of the trip, we sleep at a bed and breakfast some way off the major highway, where the eldest daughter of our hosts breastfeeds her 10-day-old baby and grandpa pours wine he made himself while serving us sausages and goat cheese.


Once amongst the tiny villages of Ariege, we stop at an even more ancient, decaying castle, Chateau de Lagarde, from perhaps even before the 12th century. We could see it from the road nearby so we parked the car and hopped a stone wall. As we approached it, we saw a handful of older tourists just up ahead, spoiling our notion of private exploration. We are prevented from entering the half-standing ruin by what was once a moat, and there are no signs detailing any information about the structure. It is just a dilapidated building surrounded by green fields and stone walls next to a tiny village. Though we can’t exactly "spelunk," it is a joy to see this. And despite the other random tourists (how did these senior citizens manage to get up there?), it is still unmolested by a cookie-cutter industry of postcards and guided tours. The downside is the lack of any information at all. Rather than ask a busy nearby landscaper, though, we decide, without a hint of irony, to look it up on the Internet later.

For all this comparing and contrasting, it seems notable that the road trip, with its desire to move beyond what is known in a given region and to learn about one’s self and the world is an ideology inherently European; all the explorers of the new world came from the old. Taking a car down through the hills and finding a hidden fortress through the trees built before the Americas were even discovered, well, there you have it. The backseat whine of, "Dad, are we there yet?" was a notion put into the world probably by American suburban baby-boomers on that first trip to the Grand Canyon in between swigs of Yoo-Hoo, but it was easily exportable. Europe has countryside, old buildings and small charming streets; we have westward expansion and long stretches of unswerving asphalt to the horizon. But in both places, all kinds of discovery can be done riding shotgun in a four-door sedan somewhere on the open road, while still content in the journey alone.

For my great-aunt Tillie Gale (1909-2002), who went from Minsk to Toronto to Chicago to San Diego, taking nine decades to make the journey.