Paul Theroux (Malawi) essay: “The Romance of the American Road Trip”

In the WSJ, September 2-3 Review Section is a long essay by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65): “The long, improvisational trip by car is an American institution–and no other travel experience especially today, can beat the sense of freedom it brings.”

Theroux begins with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, three months in their marriage and they are living in Westport, Conn. and  Zelda is slightly cranky over breakfast. She hates Yankee bacon and craves Southern biscuits. “I wish I could have some peaches anyhow.”

So Scott says, “let’s get dress and go.”

And so it begins. They set off in their secondhand 1918 Marmon Speedster for Montgomery, Alabama. All of this tale is told in Fitzgerald’s memoir The Cruise of The Rolling Junk, a 1,200-mile journey to the deep South on bad roads.

Theroux goes onto to recount other such road trips, including his own told in Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads.

He begins his passion for “road trips” in Africa writing, “My experience of the open road began in Central Africa in the early 1960s, where, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and later as a college teacher, I drove Land Rovers and sometimes Willys Jeeps for six years, through foot-deep sand, across trackless plains and over bone-shaking corrugations. The landscape was magnificent, yet the ordeal of driving, and the frequent mishaps, detracted from contemplating the passing scene.

“In 1965, I drove 2,000 miles in a Peugeot station wagon from southern Malawi to Uganda. Every hour of the trip was an anxiety, as I bumped along, cursing the road. Thirty-five years later, I made an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. None of the roads had improved, but the worst journeys make the best books, so I had plenty to report when I described the trip in my travel memoir Dark Star Safari.”

There is more in Theroux’s long and informative essay in the WSJ. Also, Theroux has a collection of essay coming out soon entitled, Figures in a Landscape.

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