In Defense of the Back Roads
On some of the very first maps of the United States, the main highway routes—straightforward, functional, consistent—were printed in red, while the back roads were blue.
As a child, I remember trailing my finger down the blue lines in my grandfather’s beaten-up North American atlas, intrigued by the names of some of the places on the map, ranging from quaint to outright bizarre. I remember wondering what types of people lived there, how they spent their time, what secrets remained buried in the dirt and clay of their unfamiliar terrain.
I was very young the first time I experienced the back roads of America, on a simple family road trip through Appalachia and down into the sleepy southern countryside. I have vivid memories of roadside crosses, coal mining towns, a quiet motel outside of Morgantown. I saw how families clasped hands and prayed with no trace of irony before consuming cheap fast food meals. The correlation of poverty and deep religiosity was not lost on me, even then.
This experience left a profound impact on my life at an age when I was not yet able to contextualize it, but now I understand. I was inspired to see firsthand that hope could thrive even in the bleakest of situations; today, I feel driven to explore the aesthetic and culture of these forgotten places.
I don’t write exclusively about working-class communities, but there are times I am convinced they offer a more honest representation of life. There is something mysterious and alluring about the untold stories to be found in the places left unmarked on cartographers’ maps. The quiet drama of small-town life may not be glamorous or theatrical. Instead, it is gritty, unnerving, and real.
At the most basic level, there is something indescribably thrilling about the road. Traveling takes us out of our comfort zones, allows us to voyeuristically observe the secret lives of others, and permits us to be outsiders if only for a moment. For many people, it is frightening to willingly choose an alternate route, to navigate the unpredictable hills and valleys of an unconventional life.
The blue highways occasionally wind and twist and lead us into danger. They are almost definitely always impractical. In this way, they are as good a metaphor as any for the life of a writer. How many among us have been warned against pursuing this life? How many have been told by well-meaning relatives that to pursue a literary career is to accept a life of near-starvation and misery? And how many of us have stayed the course anyway?
Even now, at times, the doubt creeps in, suggesting that the dream I am chasing might belong to the privileged alone. But in the end, I always come back around, remembering that summer—my first taste of the open road, the mountains, the realization that somewhere, another young girl in another small town was filling notebooks full of poem fragments and anticipating her escape someday. I remember how vividly the blue lines once stood out on the map in a sea of red.
Taking the issue of classist erasure out of the equation entirely still leaves us with the simple fact that fascinating stories exist in unlikely locations and that they deserve to be told. These powerful narratives, unsettling in their honesty and rawness, are often overshadowed by novels starring wealthy, well-educated young adults coming of age in the romantic and melancholic cities writers are told we’re supposed to relocate to.
Those stories are important too, to be sure, and for me, novels set in New York and London and Paris often serve as a form of escapism, but they are often difficult to relate to. If you were not born into such privilege, it goes without saying that they do not represent your reality.
Growing up, I dreamed of leaving my hometown. Given the choice, I still prefer to explore than stay in one place for too long. But when I think about my upbringing now, it is with a reluctant appreciation. I recognize that it helped to make me who I am, to shape my values, and to help me to write convincingly and compassionately from the underdog perspective.
Had I not experienced long stretches of alienation and loneliness in a place where my voice felt unheard, I doubt I would have turned to writing as an outlet in the first place. No matter where you are in the world, and no matter how hopeless your situation may seem, the knowledge that you can create a meaningful piece of work offers the same feeling of liberation as setting out on the open road. It’s not always the destination that matters, but the journey.